The Battle of Carrhae: A crushing defeat of the unstoppable Roman juggernaut by the Parthian Empire

The Battle of Carrhae: A crushing defeat of the unstoppable Roman juggernaut by the Parthian Empire

Ancient Roman invasion forces were considered to be unstoppable juggernauts, but the tables were turned by a formidable Parthian Empire general and devastating tactics. This clash led to one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Leading the Romans was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome. He, like many before him, had been enticed by the prospect of riches and military glory and so decided to invade Parthia.

Leading the Parthians was Surena. Very little is known of his background. What is known is that was a Parthian general from the House of Suren. The House of Suren was located in Sistan. Sistan, or Sakastan, “land of the Sakas,” located in what is today southeast Iran.

In 56 BC, Julius Caesar invited Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to Luca in Cisalpine Gaul (Luca is the modern day city of Lucca in Italy). Caesar requested that they meet to repair their strained relationship, which had been established around 60 BC and was kept secret from the Senate for some time. During this event, a crowd of 100 or more senators showed up to petition for their sovereign patronage. The men cast lots and chose which areas to govern. Caesar got what he wanted, Gaul; Pompey obtained Spain; and Crassus received Syria. All of this became official when Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls in 55 BC.

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Crassus was delighted that his lot fell on Syria. His grand strategy and desire was to make the campaigns of Lucullus against Tigranes and Pompey’s against Mithridates appear mediocre. Crassus’ grand strategy and desire of conquest and confiscation went beyond Parthia, beyond Bactria and India, reaching the Outer Ocean—easier envisioned than orchestrated.

Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. Roman Republic is shown in Purple. The Blue area represents the Seleucid Empire. The Parthian Empire is shown in Yellow. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Psychological Warfare: Masters of Disguise

Crassus, the Roman general, arrived in Syria with seven legions (roughly 35,000 heavy infantry) along with 4,000 lightly armed troops and 4,000 cavalry. Caesar had given Crassus an additional 1,000 Gallic cavalry under the command of Crassus’ son Publius. As Crassus pushed on, the enemy slowly came into sight. Crassus gave the order to halt, and to their eyes the enemy were “neither so numerous nor so splendidly armed as they had expected.” However, looks can be deceiving.

What Crassus and his army saw was the front rank of just 1,000 cavalry who were covered in skins and coats. Surena’s main force was hidden behind the front ranks. While the Romans watched in curiosity, Surena gave the order and a thundering sound proceeded forth from the Parthian cavalry. Many unseen drums covered in stretched animal hide and brass bells roared across the field, vibrating Roman armor as well as their hearts. The use of sound as a psychological weapon manipulated human behavior in both the Roman and Parthian armies. In other words, the home team was pumped up while the away team lost confidence quickly.

Parthian bronze statue, attributed to Surena, Parthian spahbed ("General" or "Commander").

Plutarch mentioned that, “before the Romans had recovered from their consternation at this din, the enemy suddenly dropped the coverings of their armor.” Once the drums were silent, the Roman army, discombobulated by the intense sound of the drums, besides being physically weak, was in for another surprise.

Battle of Carrhae

The Battle of Carrhae, fought in 53 BC near the town of Carrhae, was an important battle between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic. The Parthian Spahbod Surena decisively defeated a Roman invasion force led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. It was the first of the battles between the Roman and Persian empires, and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome, had been enticed by the prospect of military glory and riches and decided to invade Parthia without the official consent of the Senate. Rejecting an offer from the Armenian King Artavasdes II to invade Parthia via Armenia, Crassus marched his army directly through the deserts of Mesopotamia. His army clashed with Surena's force near Carrhae, a small town in modern-day Turkey. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Surena's cavalry completely outmaneuvered the Roman heavy infantry, killing or capturing most of the Roman soldiers. Crassus himself was killed when truce negotiations turned violent. His death led to the end of the First Triumvirate and the resulting civil wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Disaster at Carrhae (53 BC)

In order to understand the course of the battle and the tactics used by both sides, we need to first analyse the armies and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

The Roman Army at the Battle of Carrhae

The first issue we need to consider is the size of the Roman force, and here the accounts vary. Once again we are faced with the fact that we have no contemporary source for this information. Appian has by far and away the greatest figure when he quotes Crassus&rsquo army as 100,000 strong. 187 Such an army had not been seen since the days of Hannibal and would never have been raised for such a campaign. Again we must turn to Plutarch (and his unknown source) for a more realistic figure. Plutarch informs us that Crassus crossed into Mesopotamia in 53 BC with an army of seven legions of infantry, four thousand horsemen (of which 1,000 were Gallic and the rest native auxiliaries) and an equivalent number of auxiliary troops. 188 If we follow the standard estimates that each of Crassus&rsquo legions was roughly 4,800 men strong, then we have a figure of just under 34,000 legionaries. 189 Add the 4,000 cavalry and 4,000 auxiliary infantry and we have a total of some 42,000 men. 190

There are several problems with taking this figure as an exact one. Prior to the Imperial era, the size of the legion was not an absolute and we know that Crassus had problems recruiting legionaries, so he may not have been able to fill seven whole legions. Added to this is the rough nature of Plutarch&rsquos calculation of the number of auxiliary infantry. Thus we are working with a rough estimate of 38,000 infantry (split between legionaries and auxiliaries a difference which will be explored below) and 3,000&ndash4,000 cavalry (of which only 1,000 were Gallic).

These numbers do not represent a homogeneous body of men. Of this figure, 34,000 were full Roman legionaries. These legionaries were the elite infantry of Crassus&rsquo army, armed with javelins (pila) and short sword (gladius), with shields, helmets and chest armour for protection. In close order combat, the Roman legionary had proved to be superior to any other infantry in the ancient world. As detailed earlier, they had defeated the Macedonian phalanx and the Armenian foot-soldier. However, this did not mean that they were without weaknesses. For the legionaries to be at their most effective, the battle would have to be fought at closequarters, where the short Roman sword would be most effective. Aside from the javelin, the standard Roman legionary had little in the way of distance weaponry. In terms of defence, the helmet, shield and chest armour were again effective defence at close quarters, but this still left much of the body undefended and vulnerable to weapons of range.

Aside from weaponry and armour, we must also examine the nature of their training and ability. On the whole it appears that the bulk of Crassus&rsquo legionaries were raw recruits in 55 BC, along with a smattering of experienced legionaries (most probably distributed in the junior NCO ranks of the legion, such as the centurions). The bulk of the men would not have seen a major battle before. Nevertheless, too much can be made of the supposed inexperience of these men. They had the autumn, winter and spring of 54&ndash53 BC in which to be trained and they had been blooded in battle in 54 BC, when they defeated the Parthian satrap, Silaces. Given Crassus&rsquo previous focus on his men&rsquos training and an unwillingness to give battle unless he had total confidence in their abilities (as seen in the Spartacus campaign), we can safely assume that they were up to the expected Roman standard.

The other section of Crassus&rsquo infantry, however, was composed of native auxiliaries. In the case of auxiliary forces there were no strict rules as to their composition, numbers, or weaponry, as it depended entirely upon where they were raised which in this case we don&rsquot know. It is probable that they were raised from the Roman territories in the east and the Roman allies of the region. This would give them experience of the region and local warfare, but as to their weaponry and armour, we can only speculate. It is likely that they were lightly armoured and possessed a mixture of spears, swords and light bows. We are told at one point that there were at least 500 native archers in the army. 191 Certainly they would not have been able to match the Roman legionaries in either offensive or defensive capabilities. Nevertheless, such a mixture and balance was typical for Roman armies of the period and would have mirrored the armies of Lucullus and Pompey, and thus been more than a match for the armies that they were expecting to encounter in the region.

If there was a weakness in Crassus&rsquo army, then it lay in his cavalry. Roman armies of the period rarely had large numbers of cavalry and Crassus&rsquo army was no exception. It appears that he took no cavalry with him from Italy. Of his 4,000 cavalry, just 1,000 were non-native and these were the Gallic cavalry loaned by Julius Caesar. The Gallic cavalry are described by Plutarch as being lightly equipped with short spears and having little armour. 192 This compared badly to the Parthian heavily-armoured cataphract. Of the remaining 3,000 native cavalry we are not given any detail, but the assumption is that these too were light cavalry rather than heavily-armoured ones, given the criticism of the sources. Of either group&rsquos training or experience we know nothing, though we must again assume that they would have been brought up to scratch by Crassus and his son during the winter months.

This brings us onto another topic that needs examining before we progress, namely the quality of the Roman commanders. We have already looked at Crassus himself, but one aspect that is rarely commented on is the nature and quality of his junior officers. First and foremost were his two deputies, Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Publius Crassus (Crassus&rsquo youngest son) appears to us in the sources as being everything that his father was not. Cicero, eight years later, describes him to Julius Caesar thus:

Out of all our nobility, the young man for whom I had the highest regard was Publius Crassus and while I had entertained great hopes of him from his earliest years, I began to have quite a brilliant impression of him when the highly favourable opinions you [Caesar] had formed of him became known to me 193

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, who at an early age sought the circle of my friendship, and I exhorted him with all my power to follow that straight path to renown which his ancestors had trodden and made smooth for him. For he had enjoyed excellent upbringing and had received a thorough and complete training. His mind was good, if not brilliant, his language choice abundant, and in addition he had dignity without arrogance and modesty without sloth. 194

These refrences of Cicero&rsquos regarding Publius Crassus are two out of just five he makes to the Battle of Carrhae in total, throughout all his extant works (the other three being comments on the supposed ill omens that occurred). As well as impressing Cicero, Publius served under Julius Caesar in Gaul, where in 57&ndash56 BC he distinguished himself as a legionary commander in Aquitania. 195 Thus he appears to us from the sources (most of which are hostile to his father) as being a model Roman aristocrat brave in battle, yet modest about it. In our surviving sources, and amongst the Roman aristocracy, especially Caesar and Cicero, it is his loss at Carrhae that is felt more keenly than that of his father. 196

Yet, Publius Crassus appears to be typical of the type of officer that Marcus Crassus took on this campaign. As he had done all through his political life, and as he clearly showed during his Spartacus campaign, Crassus cultivated the best of the young Roman aristocrats this time by giving them positions on the general staff of this supposedly glorious and profitable campaign. As well as Publius, we are given a host of names of aspiring young Roman aristocrats, such as repre-sentatives of the distinguished families of the Marcii Censorini, Octavii, Petronii, Roscii and the Vargunetii.

Added to these names is that of Gaius Cassius Longinus, who served as Crassus&rsquo quaestor (official deputy) during this campaign. Cassius was later to achieve immortality as one of the two leaders of the conspirators that assassinated Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate house in 44 BC (the other being Brutus). This campaign is the first time that we hear of young Cassius, but his role is a significant one. Plutarch&rsquos account of the whole campaign places Cassius at the centre of events, always urging Crassus not to follow what turns out to be the wrong, and often disastrous, course of action. Given the later blackening of Cassius&rsquo name (due to his role in Caesar&rsquo assassination) this is highly curious (see appendix two on the possible sources for this anomaly). Of the three main commanders, Crassus, his son, and Cassius, only the latter survived to tell the tale, which makes any account he gave, including his heroic role, questionable to say the least. Nevertheless he does appear to have been yet another young and talented Roman commander.

Therefore, we can see that Crassus, regardless of later sources&rsquo views on his own abilities as a commander, undeniably had a talented and energetic command staff surrounding him. Regarding his army, though, a closer examination of their composition does reveal a number of potential flaws and weaknesses. Nevertheless, this was still a powerful Roman army and one which, on past form, was widely expected to replicate the results of the armies of Lucullus and Pompey in fighting the armies of the east. In order to understand the reason that they failed so spectacularly we must now turn our attention to the Parthian army of Surenas.

The Parthian Army at the Battle of Carrhae

Not only do we have fewer descriptions of the Parthian army at Carrhae than of the Romans, but the issue is further clouded by some noticeable differences between Parthian armies in general and the one which Surenas fielded at Carrhae, differences that hold a key significance.

Dio (writing in the third century AD) provides us with our best general description of the Parthian military and it is with him that we should start:

But I will describe their equipment of arms and their method of warfare for the examination of these details properly concerns the present narrative, since it has come to a point where this knowledge is needed. The Parthians make no use of a shield, but their forces consist of mounted archers and lancers, mostly in full armour. Their infantry is small, made up of the weaker men but even these are all archers. They practise from boyhood and the climate and the land combine to aid both the horsemanship and archery. 197

Justin, an even later Roman source, gives us the following description of the composition of the Parthian army:

They have an army, not like other nations, of free men, but chiefly consisting of slaves, the numbers of whom daily increase, the power of manumission [the freeing of slaves] being allowed to none, and all their offspring, in consequence, being born slaves. These bondsmen they bring up as carefully as their own children, and teach them, with great pains, the art of riding and shooting with the bow. 198

He then elaborates upon their tactics:

Of engaging with the enemy in close fight, and of taking cities by siege they know nothing. They fight on horseback, either galloping forward or turning their backs. Often too they counterfeit flight that they may throw their pursuers off their guard against being wounded by their arrows. The signal for battle among them is given, not by trumpet, but by drum. 199

And gives this detail of their armour:

Their armour, and that of their horses, is formed of plates, lapping over one another like the feathers of a bird, and covers both man and horse entirely. 200

Lucian, a second century source tells us that the Parthians fought in units of 1,000 known as &lsquodragons&rsquo, due to the symbol they fought under. 201

From these later descriptions it is possible to create an image of a generic Parthian army from this period, which would be composed of three types of fighting man. The elite of the army, most probably the noble or free men, would be the heavily-armed cavalrymen, known as cataphracts. Then there would be the lightly-armed horse archers and the light infantrymen, armed with bows. Both of the latter two categories would be serfs, taken from the estates of the nobility.

Surenas awaited the Roman army at Carrhae with a force composed of just 10,000 men, which would be ten dragons (if we accept Lucian&rsquos&rsquo definition of a basic Parthian unit). Of these there were apparently 1,000 cataphracts, 9,000 horse archers and no infantry. All of these men came from Surenas&rsquo own estates. In addition, Plutarch furnishes us with one crucial detail, namely that there were 1,000 baggage camels laden with spare arrows. 202 It is these last two facts that mark Surenas&rsquo army out from a standard Parthian army of the era, and we need to understand both their cause and their effect.

The lack of infantry has rarely been commented upon and, when it is, it is usually dismissed as being a side effect of Orodes taking the bulk of the army into Armenia. 203 Yet the Parthians had no single standing army as such. Each landowner was responsible for raising troops and supplying them to the king. In Surenas&rsquo case, he raised and fought with his own army, manned from his own family estates in eastern Parthia. It is unlikely that he would have split this army and even if he had, then why would the king take all of his infantry? To my mind the lack of infantry is not a passing detail or a side effect of the army&rsquos division. It is far more logical to see that the army that Surenas put into the field to fight Crassus in 53 BCwas deliberately created without any role for infantry.

Surenas had a year to study the Roman method of warfare and could consult Silaces, the defeated satrap of Mesopotamia, for first hand experience of how they fought. As the Romans had demonstrated time and again, in close order fighting they were virtually invincible. The Armenians, who fought in a similar style to the standard Parthian manner, had met with heavy defeat in 69 BC. Given everything we know about Surenas, it is clear that he would have been well aware that Orodes was intending to sacrifice him to slow down the Romans by letting him face them first, and it is equally clear that he would not meekly wait for his supposedly &lsquoinevitable&rsquo destruction. It is obvious that Surenas did not meet the Romans in battle blindly, but had worked out a strategy that he hoped would bring him victory. To accomplish this he needed to avoid playing to the Roman strengths, whilst utilising those of his own army. In this case, the Roman strength was close-quarter infantry fighting, whilst his army&rsquos were speed and long-range weapons.

Therefore, it appears that Surenas spent the winter months modifying the standard Parthian army and way of fighting into a force capable of defeating a Roman army. One key element of this plan would be the complete lack of infantry, with his whole army being composed of nothing but cavalry. Thus his army would be able to engage the Romans at speed and avoid getting entangled with the legionaries on the ground.

However, whilst the lack of footsoldiers would allow him to avoid getting entangled in a close-quarter battle, this alone would not bring him victory. Disposing of the infantry element of his army was nothing more than removing a negative aspect from his force. Of his remaining force of 10,000 the majority were lightly-armoured horse archers, who on the face of it would never be able to defeat an infantry army on their own, as they traditionally had one key flaw once they had emptied their quiver of arrows then they would be useless at a distance and would have to attack the Romans at close quarters, for which they were not armed or armoured. It is here that Surenas introduced the key element of his battleplan and one which (as far as we can tell) was unique to him. This is of course the addition of the baggage train of 1,000 camels laden with tens of thousands of additional arrows. In addition, this baggage train would be at the front line, or just behind it, allowing the horse archers to re-arm at the battlefront, rather than having to ride to the back of the army, dismount, re-arm and then return. The whole process could be done whilst still mounted, near the battle-line and would therefore take far less time.

There is one further element that was crucial to the success of this plan, namely the quality of the arrows themselves and the bows used to fire them. Here we are operating in the near-complete absence of any evidence for the type of arrow used at Carrhae. All we know is that they were barbed and completely penetrated the Roman shields and armour. Now this cannot be a coincidence, and raises two interesting aspects. The Parthians and Romans had never fought before, yet Surenas had total faith that his arrows would penetrate Roman armour. Furthermore the Romans had fought eastern armies before (the Seleucids, Pontines and Armenians), and never encountered the same problems with arrows that they did at Carrhae. The first issue can be answered with reference to Surenas&rsquo attacks on the Roman garrisons during the winter of 54&ndash53 BC, which would have had more to do with the Parthians testing of their arrows&rsquo abilities on Roman armour, than a serious attempt to retake the towns. We might recall that Plutarch relayed the Roman soldiers&rsquo claims that &lsquostrange missiles are the precursors of their appearance, which pierce through every obstacle&rsquo. 204 The strangeness of these arrows may be more than Plutarch&rsquos dramatic turn of phrase and may well illustrate that the Romans had never encountered that particular type of arrow before. Certainly Surenas went into the battle well aware of the devastating capabilities of his arrows against Roman armour. However, we must not discount the contribution made by the Parthian compound bows either. As seen in the illustration of the horse archer (figure 15), the Parthians used a short compound bow, which must have given the arrows a tremendous velocity. We have little exact evidence for the bows, other than descriptions, and shorter bows were common throughout eastern armies. Nevertheless, it is clear that the combination of this short compound bow and the barbed arrows produced devastating results on this occasion and may well have been aunique combination.

Surenas&rsquo army was fronted by one thousand cataphracts fully clad in heavy armour and armed with long lances, superficially resembling medieval knights and far superior to the Roman cavalry. These shock troops formed an advance guard for the 9,000 horse archers armed with the armour-penetrating arrows and supported by a thousand baggage camels, allowing for near instantaneous rearming on the move. Therefore, we can see that it was an army designed for fighting a battle at speed and at distance, which was just the type of fighting that did not suit the Romans.

Furthermore, Surenas&rsquo tactics played to the strengths of his men in terms of upbringing. The horse archers were all serfs from his estate and would have all been trained in horseback archery from childhood. They would have been used to following and obeying their feudal lord from birth and would have had the winter to practise the new tactics that they had been given. In short, they were the perfect body of men to learn these new tactics and carry out their master&rsquos modified version of Parthian warfare.

Thus the army that the Romans faced at Carrhae was not there as a consequence of chance, but had been designed with fighting them specifically in mind. It was not designed to fight a long campaign, but to defeat this particular Roman army in a battle. This army reflected the genius of its commander and showed the Parthian system of private armies and devolved commanders at its best. It is clear that Orodes would not have thought out or executed these tactics. The uniqueness of this force and its difference to the standard Parthian method of fighting gave Surenas another major edge in that Crassus was not expecting it. Surenas had taken the opportunity to study the Roman army and how it fought and had been given the time to modify his own force accordingly. As far as Crassus was concerned, the army that he would soon be facing would fight in exactly the same way as had the one the year before, and as the Armenians had a decade before (who after all had comprehensively defeated the Parthians themselves, a generation earlier). What he did not know is that Surenas had created a new and unique method of warfare, designed specifically to win the upcoming battle.

It is highly unlikely that Crassus would have been able to discover Surenas&rsquo new tactics before it was too late. Even his scouts would not have been able to see much difference in Surenas&rsquo army at a glance. They could report seeing little in the way of infantry, but not know that there were in fact none at all. They could report a baggage train, but then such things were common in armies they would not have been able to tell that it contained nothing but arrows. To all intents and purposes it would have looked like the army that Crassus was expecting to face. The only warning sign he had were the soldiers&rsquo stories of strange arrows raining down on them during the winter clashes, but whether he would have given them any greater significance is doubtful. When battle was joined, he would have been unaware of how truly unique a Parthian force he faced. Thus Surenas went into the battle knowing his enemies tactics, but not vice versa.

The Dio Variation of the Battle

Of the battle itself, we have two detailed descriptions from Plutarch and Dio neither is contemporaneous and they differ in some important ways. Of the two, the more detailed and knowledgeable is Plutarch&rsquos (see appendix two for the possible reasons why). In order to gain the full picture of events though, we must look at both accounts and the best place to start is with the shorter variant of Dio.

Dio&rsquos version has Crassus&rsquo army being led directly into the path of Surenas&rsquo by the Arab traitor Abgarus (though Plutarch states that he had left Crassus&rsquo army by this point 205 ). In effect it is a classic ambush, with the Parthian army being concealed, awaiting the arrival of the Romans (though this account ignores any presence of Roman scouts). Dio states that this was accomplished by the Parthians hiding in dips and woods, despite the fact that there was no woodland in this area.

Nonetheless, when the Romans were led into this trap, the Parthian army revealed themselves, at which point Publius Crassus suddenly broke ranks and led his cavalry at the Parthian ranks, which then appeared to break, with Publius giving chase. This however was a feint (which was an old tactic even in this century) and when they had led Publius away from the main army, the Parthians turned, surrounded and annihilated him.

This concluded Dio&rsquos first phase of the battle. The second phase commenced with what is described as an almost suicidal charge by the Roman infantry who did so, according to Dio, &lsquoto avenge his [Publius Crassus&rsquo] death&rsquo. 206 The Roman infantry were then devastated by the Parthian cataphracts, whose heavy lances broke the Roman ranks. Again Dio takes a scathing line on the Roman troops when he states that &lsquomany died from fright at the very charge of the lancers&rsquo. 207 With their lines broken, the Roman soldiers were then slaughtered by the Parthian archers.

The final defeat came in the third phase, which began with the final treachery of Abgarus, who not only led the Romans into this ambush, but at the appropriate point apparently turned his allied forces (which are presumed, but not mentioned prior to this point) against the Roman lines, attacking them from the rear. The Romans, apparently unable to face two enemies at once, then turned their line around and exposed themselves to a Parthian attack from the rear.

for Abgarus did not immediately make his attempt upon them. But when he too attacked, thereupon the Osroeni themselves assailed the Romans on their exposed rear, since they were facing the other way, and also rendered them easier for the others to slaughter. 208

Dio then concludes this brisk battle description with a wonderfully dramatic picture of the Roman plight:

And the Romans would have perished utterly, but for the fact that some of the lances of the barbarians were bent and others were broken, while the bowstrings snapped under the constant shooting, the missiles were exhausted, the swords all blunted and most of all, that the men themselves grew weary of the slaughter. 209

Dio would therefore ask us to believe that the Parthians ran out of weapons and ammunition (in his account there is no mention of Surenas&rsquo ammunition train) and then decided to take it easy and have mercy on the Romans, who they had grown tired of killing. It is not this aspect of his account that we find hard to believe. Dio&rsquos account is a catalogue of staggering incompetence and failures on the Roman part.

Firstly, Marcus Crassus walks the Roman army into an ambush, led along by Abgarus. Then Publius Crassus breaks with all known Roman discipline, not to mention common sense, and races off to attack the Parthians on his own and is slaughtered. Third, we have the Roman infantry rushing headlong into attacking the Parthian army, seemingly for no better reason than revenge. Fourth, we have the Romans being taken completely unawares by the treacherous attack of Abgarus&rsquo allied soldiers. Fifth, the Romans were seemingly unable to fight on two fronts and managed to get themselves twisted and turned around until they did not know which way they were facing. Marcus Crassus&rsquo role in this sequence of errors is unclear, for we hear nothing more of him once he has led his men into the trap.

Aside from the catalogue of Roman failings, Dio&rsquo account is short, devoid of any clear detail, and introduces a number of new elements which we do not find in any earlier source. They range from the significant (the treachery of the Arab allied contingent), to the bizarre (Surenas hiding his army in the woods &ndash on a dusty north Mesopotamian plain). 210 From start to finish, this battle narrative was designed to show the incompetence of the Roman army and especially it&rsquos leadership, in the form of the Crassi. Actually, the Parthians do not come out of this narrative particularly well either. It seems that they won through a mixture of underhand tactics, treachery, ambushes and feints, combined with Roman ineptitude. Given the poor state of the Parthian Empire in his own day (third century AD), this is not perhaps surprising, but as an historical record it leaves much to be desired.

If we are to find out how the Roman Republic met such a catastrophic defeat in the east, then we need to turn to Plutarch, who presents us with a more detailed and logical sequence of events, which appear to have been based on a source with first-hand experience of the battle itself.

The Initial Clash

Throughout his account, Plutarch presents us with a far more realistic depiction of the Battle of Carrhae, and it is this one that we must accept as being the closest to the true sequence of events, as far as can be determined.

Rather than walking into a trap, Plutarch tells us that Crassus had sent his scouts out looking for Surenas&rsquo army. By mid-afternoon, just beyond the river Belikh, they found what they were looking for. Given that Surenas&rsquo battleplan was based on a significant element of misinformation, not in terms of location, but in terms of his army&rsquos unusual formation and potential method of attack, it is no surprise that his own advance guard inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman scouts. 211 The fact that some survived to report their presence is also not a surprise as Surenas&rsquo plan involved the Romans advancing onto his chosen ground.

Here we can see both the brilliance of Surenas as a tactician, and where Dio gets at least one of his oddest pieces of information from. Plutarch reports that Surenas had concealed the bulk of his army behind an advance guard. Therefore, an approaching force would only see the front of the army, in its width, rather than its depth. Thus Surenas concealed the bulk of his army from Crassus until battle was engaged, but not in the bizarre method that Dio states. Plutarch tells us that

the enemy came in sight, who, to the surprise of the Romans, appeared to be neither numerous nor formidable. 212

Furthermore, Surenas had ordered his heavily-armoured cataphracts to wear concealing robes and skins over their armour, in order to disguise their true nature. To an observer they would appear to be ordinary cavalrymen, rather than cataphracts. Surenas&rsquo plan was obviously to lure Crassus into battle before he knew the number and type of force he was truly facing. It is at this point that Crassus made a decision that with hindsight may have proved to be a mistake. Plutarch reports that when the Parthians were located nearby, the Roman officers wanted to camp and give battle at day break. It is possible that this break would have allowed the Romans time to scout out the Parthians more thoroughly and therefore discover that the army which they were about to face was not a typical Parthian one. Crassus, however, wanted to push on immediately and Plutarch states that he was urged on by his son Publius, who was eager for battle. 213 It is obviously this statement that led Dio into making his claim that Publius Crassus broke away from the army at the beginning of the battle and launched himself at the Parthians.

Even if Crassus had camped for the night and attempted to scout the Parthian army, there is nothing to indicate that they would have been any more successful than their predecessors, who had been dispatched with heavy casualties (a process made easier by the massed Parthian archers). All that a further scouting mission would have been able to tell Crassus is a rough estimate of the numbers, which would give the Romans a clear four to one advantage, and that the majority of them were mounted. They would not have been able to tell him how many were cataphracts (he would have been expecting a number of them anyway), nor that the baggage train of camels actually contained a large number of spare arrows, nor that there were no infantry. When Crassus advanced upon the waiting Parthians, he did so in full confidence that his army would easily outmatch the supposedly-inferior Parthian army (both in numbers and type). He had no reason to believe that he was in fact playing right into the hands of Surenas, who had chosen his ground &ndash mostly flat with little cover, ideal for a fully mobile attack &ndash and had concealed his true tactics.

Plutarch also gives us the Roman formation as they advanced upon the Parthians. At first Crassus adopted a linear formation with his army strung out across the plain in a long line and his cavalry divided between the two wings. Crassus commanded this formation from the centre, with the two wings commanded by Cassius and Publius Crassus. Plutarch tells us that he did this in order to avoid being surrounded by the enemy and that it was Cassius&rsquo idea the implication here being that if Crassus had stuck to this formation then the Parthians would not have been able to ride around the army and attack them from many sides. 214 Quite why he was expecting them to do this at such an early stage we are not told.

However, Plutarch then tells us that Crassus altered this formation and advanced upon the Parthians in a square formation:

Then he changed his mind and concentrated his men, forming them in a hollow square of four fronts, with twelve cohorts on each side. 215 With each cohort he placed a squadron of horse, that no part of the line might lack cavalry support, but that the whole body might advance to the attack with equal protection everywhere. 216

Plutarch does not give us the reasons why Crassus changed his tactics. In fact the whole passage is an odd one. Plutarch (or his sources) is attempting to alert us to the fact that he believed that Cassius&rsquo formation was the best one and that by changing it Crassus made a mistake. We are told that Cassius&rsquo formation would have prevented the Parthians from surrounding the army, but given that the Romans only had 4,000 cavalry, compared to the Parthians&rsquo 10,000, this is an ambitious statement to say the least. Furthermore, Plutarch or his source are using hindsight here as prior to the battle no-one knew that the Parthians were going to surround the Roman army, as the Romans did not know the size of Surenas&rsquo cavalry force or his tactics.

In fact there is nothing at all wrong with Crassus&rsquo chosen formation, which as Plutarch states gave the Romans strength on all sides and would prevent an enemy from exploiting a weak area. 217 As for why Crassus chose to ignore the advice of his vastly less-experienced junior officer (Cassius), we will probably never know, but it does perhaps show a greater degree of caution, for which he was known. The battle commenced with a thunderous wall of noise from the Parthians. Plutarch describes the scene well:

the signal was raised by their commander, first of all they filled the plain with the sound of a deep and terrifying roar. For the Parthians do not incite themselves to battle with horns or trumpets, but they have hollow drums of distended hide, covered with bronze bells, and on these they beat all at once in many quarters, and the instruments give forth a low and dismal tone, a blend of wild beast&rsquos roar and harsh thunder peal. They had rightly judged that, of all the senses, hearing is the one most as to confound the soul, soonest rouses its emotions, and most effectively unseats the judgement. 218

Utilising this battle cry to full effect, Surenas opted to begin the battle with a full-scale cavalry charge at the Roman army, with the cataphracts at the front, followed by his archers. Leading the charge himself, he then had his cataphracts remove the coverings which had been hiding their armour as they were galloping. This would have added to the dramatic effect of the charge, as their highly-polished bronze and steel armour would have caught the sun. The Romans would suddenly have realised that they were facing a full charge by heavilyarmoured cavalry. Surenas was clearly using every psychological trick he could to unnerve the enemy.

However, if he was hoping for the Roman line to break, either in panic or under the force of his heavy cavalry, then he was to be disappointed. For unlike in Dio&rsquos account of the battle, the Roman line held strong. As they had been trained to do, the Romans soldiers locked their shields together and maintained their discipline and composure. We can see that in this respect Crassus had trained his army well. To maintain your discipline in the face of a cavalry charge was one thing, but given the added drama that Surenas had brought to this charge, it is a testament to the Roman discipline that they stood their ground.

This was incidental to Surenas&rsquo plan if the Roman line had broken then all the better, but it is doubtful that he ever believed it would do so. Rather than charge into the Roman line, Surenas actually diverted his cavalry around the Roman square, on both sides, until they had the Romans surrounded, taking the Romans by surprise. Crassus, however, soon recovered from this unusual tactic and, aware that he was being surrounded, ordered his auxiliary troops to charge at the Parthians and break their flanking manoeuvre. But they were met with a hail of arrows that forced them back into the square, taking heavy casualties in the process.

We can see that Surenas&rsquo battleplan had worked beautifully thus far. Rather than attack the Romans head on and get involved in a static mêlée, which would have favoured his enemy, he encircled them at speed and deployed the bulk of his force, his 9,000 horse archers, to devastating effect. Now the Parthian archers began to unleash a barrage of arrows at the Romans from all sides. Given the penetrative capabilities of the arrows the Parthians were using, the Roman army was soon being slaughtered. Plutarch again captures the scene well,

But the Parthians now stood at long intervals from one another and began to shoot their arrows from all sides at once, not with any accurate aim, for the dense formation of the Romans would not suffer an archer to miss his man even if he wished it, but making vigorous and powerful shots from bows which were large and mighty and curved so as to discharge their missiles with great force. At once the plight of the Romans was a grievous one for if they kept their ranks, they were wounded in great numbers, and if they tried to come to close quarters with the enemy they suffered just as much. For the Parthians shot as they fled and it is a very clever thing to seek safety while still fighting and to take away the shame of flight. 219

Thus the Roman army, despite its numerical superiority, was trapped, huddled in a square and coming under a constant barrage of arrows. If the Romans moved to engage the archers, they would turn and retreat whilst still firing. The Roman soldiers could not get near enough to the archers to engage them in close combat. This tactic became known as the &lsquoParthian shot&rsquo, the ability to still attack your opponents whilst retreating. Once Crassus had recovered from the initial shock of the Parthian tactics, however, he still had several reasons to be hopeful. Although his army was taking casualties, he must have sensed that if this was the best the Parthians could do, then he could still carry the day. The Parthian army seemed to be composed of nothing but horse archers, supported by a relatively low number of cataphracts. The Romans had already shown that they could withstand a full cavalry charge, the Parthians had no infantry, and once the archers ran out of arrows then the Romans could advance and force their retreat.

In this regard Crassus would normally have been quite correct. Under the usual terms of battle, the horse archers would soon have emptied their quivers and the Parthian cavalry would then have had to attack the Romans legions at close quarters (or withdraw). However, it is at this point that the true masterstroke of Surenas&rsquo plan was brought into play &ndash namely mobile re-arming. Having surrounded the Romans, Surenas deployed his camel train to replenish the archers. Thus the Parthian archers would only need a short break to ride up to one of the camels, take a fresh quiver of arrows, return to their positions and continue shooting. So long as the archers did this at slightly different times, and as long as the camels were well spaced amongst the surrounding archers, then the barrage would continue indefinitely.

It appears that Crassus soon became aware of this development. Perhaps he observed it actually happening, or he simply deduced that the rain of arrows was not weakening. Once he was aware of it though, he realised that his only hope now lay in breaking the encirclement. To that end, he sent a message to his son, out on one of the wings (we do not know which), ordering him to lead a breakout and engage the enemy at close quarters with his cavalry. If the Roman cavalry could drive off the Parthians, even in one area, then it would give the main army time to regroup. This breakout and the engagement that followed would deter-mine the outcome of the whole battle.

The Breakout and the &lsquoBattle within a Battle&rsquo

Publius Crassus gathered together as many troops as he could muster on his wing. Plutarch tells us that he had 1,300 cavalry (including his own 1,000 Gauls), 500 auxiliary archers and eight cohorts of legionaries (just under 4,000 men). 220 Publius then led this force and charged the Parthian cavalry ahead of him. Plutarch also records that with him leading the charge were two young aristocratic friends of his, Censorinus and Megabacchus. 221 At first it appeared that the plan had worked successfully as the Parthians appeared to break, turn and retreat. Not wanting to lose the initiative and sensing victory, Publius chased after the enemy, with both cavalry and infantry, hoping to finish the Parthians off.

Whether the Parthians on Publius&rsquo wing did genuinely break or not, we will never know. Plutarch certainly raises it as a possibility. 222 Publius&rsquo charge would certainly have taken them by surprise and it was conducted with a large number of Roman and allied cavalry, backed up by archers and legionaries. Such a force was a formidable combination of speed, firepower and close-order infantry. However, the retreating Parthians wheeled their horses away from the main Roman army and towards their cataphracts. At that point the retreating Parthians turned, were joined by the cataphracts and attacked the oncoming Romans.

Whilst it appeared that the Romans still had the numerical advantage, and had a good mix of cavalry and foot, once again the Parthians adhered to the battle-plan of their master and placed the cataphracts between the Romans and their archers. This would have allowed the archers to continue to fire at the Romans as the two cavalry forces engaged each other, in the first, and only, close-order clash of the battle.

Although the Romans had the numerical advantage in this encounter, the Parthians had by far and away the advantage in terms of weaponry. The Roman cavalry were lightly armoured and only had short spears, whilst the Parthian cataphracts were heavily armoured and carried long lances. They were supported by mounted archers, whilst the Roman archers were on foot and would not have been able to keep up with the mounted clash. The same goes for the 4,000 Roman legionaries present. Nevertheless it is said that Publius Crassus led the charge into the Parthian cataphracts with great bravery and determination, backed up by his Gallic cavalry.

Plutarch gives a testimony to the bravery of the Gallic cavalry:

with these [the Gauls] he did indeed work wonders. For they laid hold of the long spears of the Parthians, and grappling with the men, pushed them from their horses, hard as it was to move them owing to the weight of their armour and many of the Gauls forsook their own horses, and crawling under those of the enemy, stabbed them up in the belly. These would rear up in their anguish, and die trampling on riders and enemy indiscriminately mingled. 223

Thus Plutarch paints a harrowing picture of the chaos that was a battle within a battle. Strategy went out of the window, replaced by a mêlée where it came down to hand-to-hand fighting between Gauls and Parthians. When the dust had literally settled, despite their bravery and savagery, it was clear that the Gallic cavalry had been well beaten. Those that remained were all wounded, including Publius Crassus himself, and they retreated to the relative protection of the Roman legionaries that had accompanied them. This force then moved to a nearby hillock to make a determined last stand, with the horses in the centre and a ring of legionaries, with locked shields, on the outside to protect the wounded. This, of course, did not save them from a fresh barrage of arrows from the Parthian horse archers.

Plutarch reports that despite being advised to either flee or surrender, Publius Crassus was determined not to desert his command. 224 Seeing that they were surrounded on that hillock and that defeat was inevitable, and unwilling to be taken alive, he resolved to choose a more dignified exit. Being unable to pick up a sword due to an arrow wound to the hand, he ordered a soldier to strike a sword into his side, killing him instantaneously. Plutarch also tells us that Censorinus did likewise, whilst Megabacchus still had the strength to take his own life, as did the other surviving officers. 225 The rest of the men fought on until the Parthian cataphracts charged the hillock, butchering them with their long lances. Of a force of around 5,500, less than 500 were taken alive 226 . The Romans had lost over a quarter of their cavalry (including all of their best Gallic cavalry), and a good number of their archers, along with a number of the key junior officers. It was a defeat that sounded the end for Roman hopes at Carrhae. With this force defeated, the Parthians chopped off Publius&rsquo head, stuck it on top of a lance, and returned to the main battle. Before we return to the battle though, we need to dwell on this most important encounter within the Battle of Carrhae, as ultimately it decided the fate of the battle.

This episode has often been explained as being nothing more than Publius Crassus falling for one of the oldest traps in existence: a faked retreat to draw him away from the main body of the army, leading him into heavier Parthian forces, which then turned on him and cut him down. Yet this view overlooks a number of key elements. Firstly, the Romans had to attempt a breakout or they would have faced total annihilation. Secondly, the Parthian cavalry surrounding the Roman army was mostly horse archers they had only 1,000 cataphracts to protect 9,000 horse archers from 40,000 Romans. Publius took with him all of Rome&rsquos best cavalry (the Gauls) as well as a number of archers and legionaries in support.

The question of whether it was an intended trap depends on what orders Surenas had given. He must have expected the Romans to attempt to break out of his encirclement and we must ask ourselves what strategy he had prepared for this eventuality. Given the appearance of a large force of cataphracts, it is more than likely that Surenas had held them in reserve, following the initial charge and encirclement, so that they could be deployed against any breakout. With careful observation the cataphracts could be sent to wherever the Romans broke out of. All the horse archers had to then do was retreat, whilst still firing, and lead the Roman force towards where they knew the reserve force of cataphracts would be. The trap would then close in on them.

Again, this shows the brilliance of Surenas. Not only did he have an initial strategy, but he had a counter strategy to deal with any Roman breakout. It also demonstrates the severe threat that the Parthians still faced from the Romans, despite the successful encirclement and the barrage of arrows. Had the Roman cavalry successfully broken out of Surenas&rsquo trap, then they could have put the horse archers to flight and allowed the army to extricate themselves. It is unlikely that it would have brought them victory, but it would have given them time to retreat and regroup.

The aim of Surenas&rsquo plan must have been a clear and total victory on the day. Anything less than the destruction of the Roman army would have allowed them to withdraw and fight another day, and Surenas was only ever going to fool them with his modified way of fighting once. For Surenas it was all or nothing winning the day would not be enough, he had to win the war in one battle. Without total victory at Carrhae, the Romans would return, stronger than before.

Even though the breakout had been planned for, the fighting itself was still going to be close. The Romans broke out with 1,300 cavalry and over 4,000 foot. Given that Surenas only had 1,000 cataphracts in total (and we do not know how many were deployed against Publius) the result was never going to be a foregone conclusion. As it was, the superior Parthian cataphracts carried the day, which meant that the key encounter of the battle was lost due to the poorer quality of the Roman cavalry. For all the tactical planning and innovations, in the end it came down to that one factor. The Romans were not lacking in courage, on the part of Publius or his Gauls they simply were outmatched in terms of weaponry.

The Final Stage

Initially at least, the breakout that Crassus ordered appeared to have worked. A large part of the Parthian army encircling the main Roman force was drawn away, either fleeing from Publius or riding hard to catch up with him. Crassus used this let-up wisely and staged a withdrawal, whilst still under intermittent arrow fire. The Roman army, laden with casualties, regrouped on nearby sloping ground, which would at least give them some protection from the Parthian cavalry. Here Crassus was faced with a difficult decision, exacerbated by a lack of information, as he needed to know how his son was doing. If Publius had routed the Parthians opposed to him, then he could have possibly advanced and cleared the rest of the Parthian cavalry away, or at least retreated back to the safety of one of the garrisoned towns and regrouped. However, he was not able to come to any decision until he had this information, to which ends he sent messengers out, to try to reach Publius&rsquo position.

Plutarch records that the first one was intercepted and killed, but that the second messenger not only reached Publius&rsquo position, but was able to assess thesituation and mange to return to the main army. When he did so, he informed Crassus that his son was surrounded and being cut to pieces. 227 To say that this left Crassus with a dilemma would be an understatement. On a military basis, he knew that the breakout would fail unless he took the main army to link up with Publius. However, this meant gambling with his army and putting them back into the mess that they had only just managed to extricate themselves from. Even if they got there in time, there was no reason to assume that they would be victorious, as the rest of the Parthian army would also converge there.

On the other hand, if he turned and retreated he was not only condemning his son to death &ndash a death that would have been his responsibility &ndash but as the majority of the Roman army was on foot and the Parthians were mounted, there was no reason to believe that they would reach safety in time. Given the number of casualties that they had already sustained, their progress would not have been swift. Furthermore, if the main body of the Parthians did catch them up, they would be strung out in columns and with their backs to them. For whatever reason, military or personal (or both), Crassus resolved that the only move open to them was to advance and meet up with Publius&rsquo beleaguered force.

But, before they had advanced far, they were met with the sight and sound that told them that the encounter between Publius and the Parthians was over. Coming towards them was a cloud of dust accompanied by the beating of war drums. When the Parthians did come into view, they were preceded by the severed head of Publius Crassus. Plutarch tells us that Roman morale sank. 228 Not only had a large number of their colleagues been slaughtered, depriving them of most of their cavalry support, but they knew that the battle was about to be rejoined. Despite his grief, it was at this point that Crassus showed his qualities as a general and tried to rouse his men with an impassioned speech:

Mine, O Romans, is the sorrow, and mine alone but the great fortune and glory of Rome abide unbroken and unconquered in you who are alive and safe. And now if you have any pity for me, thus bereft of the noblest of sons, show it by your wrath against the enemy. Rob them of their joy avenge their cruelty be not cast down at what has happened, for it must needs be that those whose aim at great deeds should also suffer greatly. It was not without bloody losses that even Lucullus overthrew Tigranes, or Scipio overthrew Antiochus and our fathers of old lost a thousand ships off Sicily and in Italy many imperators and generals, not one of whom, by his defeat, prevented them from afterwards mastering his conquerors. For it was not by good fortune merely that the Roman state reached its present position of power, but by patient endurance and the valour of those who faced dangers on its behalf. 229

Now, whilst we have to admit that it is highly unlikely that anyone had the time or the materials to note the speech down word for word, there were enough survivors to have noted the general contents of the speech. Furthermore, as it is reported by Plutarch, who takes a fairly hostile line on Crassus over Carrhae, we can have some confidence that the speech is a fairly accurate representation of what Crassus said.

Nevertheless it was going to take something greater than a stirring speech to save the Romans from the impending slaughter. True to his plan, Surenas (and we are not told whether he was directly involved in the defeat of Publius) employed his tried and tested tactics. The cataphracts again charged the Roman army, forcing them to form closely together, and then the horse archers were brought back into the fray. The Roman army was subject to a constant barrage of arrows and lances, slowly whittling down their numbers.

Only one thing saved the Roman army from total annihilation that day at Carrhae, and that was the arrival of dusk, whereupon the Parthians withdrew for the night. Even though they had the Romans surrounded, the Parthians were unwilling to risk fighting at night. Aside from the traditional reluctance they had of fighting after dark, the conditions made continuing highly risky. They were in the middle of a plain with little natural light and the danger of getting too close to the Romans, or even of friendly fire, was too great.

Thus despite the slaughter and the total defeat they had suffered, the Romans still had a glimmer of hope. The Parthians withdrew and camped nearby, and made no attempt to block their escape. This may seem odd to us today, especially given that the Romans still numbered some 20,000 men (including their wounded) and Crassus himself was still alive and unwounded (in the physical sense anyway). Surenas knew that he had won a spectacular victory, the likes of which no one but he had thought possible, yet he still faced problems. Although the Romans had been comprehensively defeated, a large number of them yet remained, who, if they made for the safety of Roman-held territory, would have been able to recover and regroup. Furthermore, Crassus, the architect and driving force of the Roman invasion, was likely to be more determined than ever to avenge the death of his son. As long as Crassus remained free, the danger to Parthia was not over. Plutarch hints that the Parthians sent an embassy to the Roman army when night fell, to discuss terms of surrender. All he actually says is that:

they would grant Crassus one night in which to bewail his son, unless, with a better regard for his own interests, he should consent to go to Arsaces (Orodes II) instead of being carried there. 230

Taking Crassus alive would have been a major prize for Surenas. Yet, due to the Parthian inability or unwillingness to fight at night, the prize could still have eluded Surenas and if Crassus escaped then it would tarnish the remarkable achievements of that day. Ironically, Crassus&rsquo decision to fight immediately in the afternoon, rather than next morning, actually saved the Roman army from utter annihilation, though the Romans had clearly suffered a devastating defeat. Half of their army was dead, and they had been comprehensively outfought. Yet all was not lost. As Crassus himself had pointed out in his rousing speech, Rome had been defeated many times in battle and yet had always emerged victorious in the end. Half the army lay dead on the field of Carrhae, but half yet remained. If they could get safely back to the series of Roman-controlled Mesopotamian towns and then ultimately back into Syria itself, they could re-group for the winter.

It was still possible for Crassus to turn the clock back a year. Rome still held the bridgehead of garrisoned towns in northwestern Mesopotamia. If Crassus wintered in Syria, he could allow his injured soldiers time to heal, raise fresh troops (he was still one of the three men who dominated the Roman Republic after all) and rebuild his army. Certainly his reputation would have taken a battering, but his powerbase was secure. His command extended until 50 BC so there was plenty of time for a fresh campaign in 52 BC. Furthermore, Surenas could only play his masterstroke once. Crassus was not going to fall for that trick twice and could send to Rome for fresh forces, especially additional cavalry. He could plan a new route of invasion, perhaps taking the cities of Babylon, Seleucia and Ctesiphon, which would rebuild shattered Roman morale and then tackle Surenas in his own time and fashion. Thus, as night fell on the battlefield of Carrhae, the Romans had lost the battle, but not the war the whole campaign was still in the balance, dependant upon the Romans making it to safety.

Before we commence an analysis of the Roman retreat we must pause and comment on the one major discrepancy between the accounts of Plutarch and Dio, that is the treacherous attack of the Osroene leader, Abgarus. Plutarch, writing a century earlier than Dio and seemingly using a first hand account of the campaign, had no such attack take place. Crassus was accompanied for a time in Mesopotamia by an Arab chieftain, whom he names as Ariamnes. 231 Even allowing for confusion over names, there is the fundamental point that Plutarch records the Arab chieftain left Crassus&rsquo army before the Battle of Carrhae. 232 Furthermore, in what is a very detailed account of the battle itself, at no point does Plutarch mention that a native allied contingent betrayed the Romans and attacked them, which we must expect to find if it actually happened. Given its absence from this, our best source for the battle, we must assume that this treacherous attack did not occur. Where Dio got this from we will never know, but, as far as is possible to do so when dealing with ancient sources, we must clearly note that this treacherous attack by Abgarus in the Roman rear did not take place and was a later fiction copied by Dio into his account.

The Retreat to Carrhae

Again, Plutarch and Dio disagree on the finer details of the retreat. Nevertheless, the first stage of the Roman retreat was to get safely back to the town of Carrhae itself and the security of its walls and Roman garrison. Plutarch tells us that the Romans looked to Crassus for leadership, but that he was lying on the ground in despair, which meant that the escape had to be organised by the two most senior surviving Roman officers: Cassius and Octavius. 233 Dio omits this and states that Crassus led the survivors on the retreat. 234

It is clear that the journey itself was a perilous one. In the dead of a cold Mesopotamian night, 15,000&ndash20,000 men, a good many of them injured, had to walk the route back to Carrhae. In fact it was no mean feat that they were still able to navigate their way back to the town in darkness and following the hardship of the day&rsquos battle. A hard decision had to be taken that night, in regard to what was to be done with those men who were too seriously wounded to walk. Given that time was of the essence and that they had to be at the walls of Carrhae before dawn, the brutal decision was made to leave the seriously wounded behind. Plutarch provides us with a dramatic description of their journey

Then the sick and wounded perceived that their comrades were abandoning them, and dreadful disorder and confusion, accompanied by groans and shouts filled the camp. And after this, as they tried to advance, disorder and panic seized upon them, for they felt sure that the enemy was coming against them. Frequently they would change their course, frequently they would form in order of battle, some of the wounded who followed them had to be taken up, and others laid down, and so all were delayed 235

Not only were a number of men left behind, numbering some 4,000 it is estimated, but a number would have died on route to Carrhae, from untreated wounds and fatigue. 236 For many it was a march of death. The first Romans to reach the town of Carrhae were the remnants of the Roman auxiliary cavalry, about 300 in number. They were led by a Roman nobleman by the name of Egnatius. However, when they reached the town an event occurred that was to set the tone for the whole Roman retreat. Upon reaching the walls of Carrhae, Egnatius gained the attention of the Roman guards on the walls, shouting to them to tell their commander (a Roman officer by the name of Coponius) that a great battle had taken place between Crassus and the Parthians. At that point he and his men promptly rode off and headed towards Zeugma and the crossing back into Roman Syria, without even identifying who he was.

This was an ominous sign: a Roman officer deserting his commander and the whole campaign and riding as fast as possible for the safety of a Roman province. Plutarch tells us that Egnatius was forever tainted by this act of cowardice and we can find no further trace of him in subsequent Roman political or military life. 237 Nevertheless, despite its brevity, the message actually had the desired effect and Coponius, realising that something catastrophic had occurred, immediately led an expedition out from Carrhae, located the column of Roman survivors and escorted them back into the town.

For Crassus at least, the first stage of the retreat had been accomplished and the bulk of the Roman survivors had reached safety. Exactly how many men reached the relative safety of Carrhae is difficult to estimate, as we are not given a clear figure by Plutarch. However, it does seem, judging from some of the later figures that Plutarch gives us, that between 15,000&ndash20,000 men reached the town. Actually, this raises one of the most surprising and neglected aspects of the whole Carrhae campaign, namely how many Romans were killed during the battle and how many were killed during the aftermath. As we shall see the balance between the two is actually quite surprising.

When dawn broke, the Parthians advanced upon the site of the Roman army&rsquos last stand, and as they expected found that the bulk of the army had fled. What they also found were the 4,000 seriously wounded Roman soldiers, who had been left behind. Surenas, unwilling to show any more mercy to them than their comrades had, promptly had these men slaughtered. He then set upon the task of locating the bulk of the Roman army. During this day his cavalry came across a number of Roman stragglers, who had either been separated from, or fallen behind, the main group (an easy thing to do given the state of the retreat at night). In all but one case they too were easily dispatched.

There was, however, one notable exception, which Plutarch chooses to highlight and so should we. One of Crassus&rsquo legates was an officer by the name of Vargunteius, who hailed from a minor senatorial family. During the retreat he was in command of four cohorts, less than 2,000 men (especially given the losses of the previous day), but became separated from the main group. When day broke and the Parthian cavalry located them, they decided to make a last stand on a small hillock. Given the overwhelming odds there was only ever going to be one outcome, yet they fought and died hard to such an extent that the Parthians noted them for their bravery, not something that had been in great supply from the Romans during the retreat. As they were down to the last twenty men (not including Vargunteius, who had already fallen) they charged the Parthians in a last defiant gesture. So impressed were the Parthians with their defiant stand that they parted and allowed them to continue to Carrhae unmolested. 238 Such tales of heroism in this retreat were few and far between.

As stated earlier, we therefore have recorded incidents of over 6,000 Roman soldiers surviving the battle, but dying the next day. Given that these are only two such incidents (many more not being recorded due to the absence of any surviving witnesses) we can begin to appreciate the scale of the Roman losses that occurred in the days after the battle.

The Retreat to Syria

At this point, both Crassus and Surenas were locked in an odd game of cat and mouse. Surenas was not exactly sure of where Crassus was, whilst Crassus and his army had to evade the Parthians and seek the refuge of either Armenia or Syria. Although Carrhae was the most logical place for Crassus to make for, Surenas could not be certain. Added to this, Plutarch states that Surenas received a report (from whom we are never told, nor are we told how Plutarch&rsquos source got to know of this) that Crassus was not in Carrhae and was in fact heading for the border. 239 This would have left Surenas in something of a dilemma. However, he soon came up with a plan to resolve it by sending a man up to the walls of Carrhae and requesting a peace conference between himself and Crassus, to organise a truce and a safe withdrawal of the Roman forces from the towns and cities of Mesopotamia. Whilst the evacuation of the occupying Roman garrisons was a necessary move for the Parthians, Surenas needed to locate Crassus, dead or alive, even more. Plutarch reports that Cassius took the bait and reported back to Surenas&rsquo emissary that Crassus would be willing to meet with him, which only served to confirm Crassus&rsquo presence within the town. 240 By this simple ruse and by Cassius&rsquo short-sightedness, the Parthians now knew where to end this war and Surenas moved his entire army towards the town of Carrhae.

For Crassus, Cassius&rsquo stupidity had left him with an even bigger headache. Given the strength of the Roman forces in Carrhae (a garrison, plus 15,000&ndash20,000 survivors) he would have been able to resist a Parthian siege, not that Surenas&rsquo army was equipped for storming a city. The problem was that although the Parthians could not get in, soon the Romans would not have been able to get out and they did not know how long the food and water would last, given the size of the Roman forces within. Crassus could have adopted a policy of waiting it out if he knew help was going to arrive to alleviate a siege, but where would this help come from? Assistance would not soon be forthcoming from Roman Syria, given the few forces that remained there, which only left Armenia. However, as Crassus was not able to rely on the Armenians to help him when he was in a position of power, it was highly unlikely that he could do so now in such a weakened one. Although he was never to know it, this assessment proved to be a highly perceptive one, as only a few days later King Artavasdes would meet with King Orodes to discuss a peace treaty between Armenia and Parthia.

This left Crassus with only one viable option he would have to break out of Carrhae, evade the waiting Parthians and make for Syria or the Armenian foothills. It appears that the Roman army was divided up into groups, each led by one of the senior surviving commanders. We know of groups led by Crassus, Octavius and Cassius, but there must have been more. It is probable that each group had a different destination and different route, to divide and distract the Parthian pursuers. The move had to be made at night, so as to slip past the Parthians and had to be done when there was no full moon, in order to keep as much cover as possible.

Although we know what happened next, why it happened is the subject of much conjecture. The facts, ultimately are that whilst Cassius&rsquo group made it to Syria, Octavius&rsquo and Crassus&rsquo did not. Plutarch ascribes this to Crassus once again relying on, and being betrayed by, a native guide, this time a man known as Andromachus. According to Plutarch, Andromachus offered to guide Crassus and Cassius from Carrhae, but planned to lead them on a circuitous route and delay them, so that the Parthians would be able to find them by daybreak. 241

Plutarch&rsquos version of the event also has Cassius realising that they were being led into a trap, then breaking away and returning to Carrhae without telling Crassus 242 . If this was true then it was desertion of the highest order. It would seem to be either a daring double bluff or foolish in the extreme to return to the town of Carrhae, past the Parthians once more and hope that they rode off after the other groups. Dio, naturally, has none of this detail. He has Crassus making for the Armenian foothills and Cassius safely reaching Syria independently. 243 When day broke and the Parthians realised that the Romans had evacuated Carrhae, they set off after them once more. Again Dio reports that many groups did not escape the Parthian cavalry, though it seems that on this day a number of them were taken prisoner (perhaps this was due to Surenas wanting Crassus alive or at least to confirm that they had killed the right man). 244

Of the three main groups, we know that Crassus&rsquo got bogged down in a marsh, whether at the hand of a treacherous guide or by simple misfortune, and thus when day broke he was still out in the open and some way off safety. Octavius and the 5,000 men he commanded had reached the relative safety of the mountains at Sinnaca before daybreak. Cassius it seems disappears from the picture and only turns up again safe and sound in Roman Syria, the only one of the key Roman commanders to do so.

By now the Parthians, led by Surenas, had spotted Crassus&rsquo group and were moving in on them. However, he was saved by the intervention of Octavius, who could see the relative position of both groups from his high position. Unlike many of the Roman officers in that retreat, he appears not to have thought of his own safety, but his duty to his commander and led his force of 5,000 men (some of them unwillingly) to rescue Crassus from the advancing Parthians, who were far less in number than the Romans. Thus Crassus finally reached the safety of the foothills, where the Parthian cavalry were far less potent and where Roman numbers would count.

For Surenas, the situation was serious. Certainly he had defeated the Roman army at Carrhae and he had inflicted further heavy casualties on them during the retreat, but if Crassus should escape, even with a force of 10,000 men back into Syria, then the war would continue. In desperation, he tried one last stratagem. He either sent an embassy to the Romans in the hills, or went himself, stating that he wanted a peace conference to offer the Romans the opportunity to evacuate all territories east of the Euphrates. The details of this treaty were to be worked out at this meeting between the two men, along with a few officers from either side, on neutral ground between the two forces. Plutarch reports that he went and delivered this offer himself and reports his words:

I have put your valour and power to the test against the wishes of the king, who now of his own accord shows you the mildness and friendliness of his feelings by offering to make a truce with you if you will withdraw and by affording you the means of safety. 245

Now, Dio and Plutarch report very different reactions by Crassus to this offer. Dio reports that:

Crassus, without hesitation, trusted him. For he was in the very extremity of fear, and was distraught by the terror of the calamity that had befallen both himself and the state. 246

According to Dio, therefore, Crassus was eager to meet Surenas and accept whatever deal he offered, and so walked right into his trap. Dio&rsquos account would have us believe that the experienced general and the cynical political manipulator that Crassus was, fell for this ruse due to the pressures he had been under during the last few days. Plutarch however reports a very different Crassus and one more in keeping with the man we know. He reports that:

Crassus, who&rsquos every discomfiture at the hands of the barbarians had been due to fraud, and who thought the suddenness of their change a strange thing, would not reply, but took the matter into consideration. 247

This description fits the cunning and cynical Crassus that is more familiar to us. Even after all that had happened to him, he was still very much in control of his faculties. He would have been well aware that he had lost the battle, but not the war. However, he was not prepared for what happened next. Although he and his officers saw through Surenas&rsquo ruse, the surviving legionaries, trapped on a desolate Mesopotamian hilltop, and with the Parthian force below, apparently did not. In yet another example of the lack of discipline that had plagued the retreat from the start, the troops mutinied and demanded that Crassus attend the peace negotiations. They had survived the calamitous day at Carrhae and the two near-disastrous retreats and now it appeared that their officers wanted more hardship for them, rather than a negotiated settlement. Plutarch reports that Crassus once again attempted to reason with them, arguing that they could make good their escape into the hills, but to no avail. 248 In all fairness he had led them on what turned out to be a disastrous campaign and we could hardly blame the legionaries for having little faith left in his abilities or judgement. Thus Crassus was forced to meet Surenas, for what he believed would be his death, rather than his soldiers&rsquo salvation.

Plutarch reports that before he descended to meet Surenas, he made one final and prophetic speech to his two senior surviving commanders:

Octavius and Petronius and you other commanders of Rome here present, you see that I go because I must and you are witnesses of the shameful violence I suffer but tell the world, if you get safely home, that Crassus perished because he was deceived by his enemies, and not because he was delivered up to them by his countrymen. 249

With that he descended to meet Surenas. Once again though, Octavius did not let him down and he and Petronius and some other of the officers went with Crassus, in order to protect him. When Crassus sent two legates ahead of him to meet with Surenas and see what protocol was to be observed, neither returned. Plutarch names them as the two Roscius brothers. 250 Nevertheless, Crassus and his retinue continued onwards. When Surenas and his officers met with Crassus they noted that they were on horses whilst he was on foot and offered him the use of a spare horse, which they had brought along. When Crassus mounted the horse, the Parthian grooms attempted to gallop the horse away towards the Parthian lines, with Crassus still on top of it. At once Octavius stepped in and killed one of the grooms, but was in turn struck down by the other one. Petronius too entered the fight and was killed by his commander&rsquos side. It is reported that Crassus was the last to fall in this unedifying struggle, killed by a Parthian soldier named by the sources as either Promaxathres or Exathres. 251

Upon the death of Crassus and most of his senior officers, Surenas sent word to the Romans up in the hills, who had witnessed this assassination (which they had greatly been responsible for), and called for their surrender, pledging that they would not be ill treated. Amazingly, a number of them actually believed Surenas&rsquo offer, despite what happened to Crassus, and did surrender. They were added to the growing tally of Roman prisoners. Understandably a number of the remaining soldiers did not accept Surenas&rsquo offer and made away under the cover of night. Plutarch reports that the majority of them were hunted down and killed, whilst Dio states that the majority escaped through the mountains and reached safety in Roman territory. 252

Thus died Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the three leading men of Rome assassinated in an ignominious scramble over a horse. Within a decade he was joined by the other two members of the triumvirate: Pompey, assassinated on an Egyptian beach in 48 BC and Caesar, four years later, assassinated in the Roman Senate House by a group of his so-called supporters (who incidentally were jointly led by Cassius, the man who had let Crassus down on so many occasions).

It was here, in the hills of Sinnaca, that Surenas finally completed his victory. With Crassus dead the Roman campaign was over and the war had been won. Surenas seized the chance to celebrate and did so in a vindictive style. He had Crassus&rsquo head cut off (as he had done with Publius&rsquo) as well as his hand, and sent Silaces (the satrap of Mesopotamia, whom Crassus had defeated in 54 BC and who was at the Battle of Carrhae) to convey both trophies to King Orodes. Before doing so it is alleged that he poured molten gold into the mouth of Crassus&rsquo head, mocking his great wealth. 253 Crassus&rsquo body was then apparently left to rot on a heap of Roman corpses. 254

Before the head reached the king he arranged a victory parade in the city of Seleucia (which he had retaken the previous year from the rebel Mithradates III and which was known to harbour pro-Roman sympathies). He paraded the Roman captives through the streets of Seleucia in a mockery of a Roman triumph. At the head of the procession he placed a Roman prisoner who was said to resemble Crassus and had him dressed in a woman&rsquos robe and forced him to pretend to be Crassus. 255 Behind him he had men carrying Crassus&rsquo fasces (the ceremonial bundle of rods and axes which symbolised a consul&rsquos authority), but now they were crowned with freshly-severed Roman heads. Next came the captured Roman legionary eagles, the symbol of Roman military might, which were then distributed amongst unnamed Parthian temples and hung there as trophies for the next thirty years. 256 Following the prisoners were a number of Seleucid musicians who sang songs ridiculing Crassus for his cowardice and effeminacy. Surenas even brandished a number of parchments of the Milesiaca, a noted erotic work, found amongst the possessions of one of the Roscius brothers, to ridicule the Romans&rsquo weaknesses.

In Armenia, Silaces arrived with his special delivery just as King Orodes and King Artavasdes of Armenia were conducting a treaty of alliance. There are no reports of whether any fighting actually took place between the Armenians and the Parthians. Given this silence and Artavasdes&rsquo vacillating mood earlier in 53 BC, it is most probable that the Armenians gave in without a fight. It is possible that Artavasdes was hoping that this would only be a temporary treaty and that he could break it when Crassus defeated Orodes and then try to explain away his actions.

As it turned out, both kings at the meeting were in for a shock. Under the terms of the treaty with Parthia, Armenia would return to the vassal status that it occupied in the time of Mithradates II, with Parthia acknowledged as the stronger, but Armenia retaining its territorial integrity. Once again the treaty was sealed with a marriage alliance, with Artavasdes&rsquo sister being married to Orodes&rsquo eldest son, Pacorus. Ultimately Crassus&rsquo invasion had allowed Orodes to turn the clock back on Parthian-Armenian relations and restore the old balance of power. It was at the feast to celebrate this alliance that Silaces arrived with Crassus&rsquo head to be more precise, it was during a theatrical performance of the Bacchae, by the famous Greek playwright Euripides (both the Parthian and Armenian kings had developed a taste for the mainstream Hellenistic culture). During a pause in the singing, it is reported, Silaces entered and, after making his bow to the king, cast Crassus&rsquo head into the space where the singer stood. At which point the singer, named as Jason of Tralles, picked the head up and recited the verse from the play:

We bring from the mountain, a freshly cut twist of ivy to the palace, a prosperous spoil. 257

To the Parthians it seemed fitting for Crassus it was the final humiliation, his head being use as a theatrical prop in a Greek drama. 258 However, when the rejoicing was over, both kings would have realised that they now had growing problems. For Artavasdes, rather than playing the Romans off against the Parthians and thereby maintaining an independent Armenia, now found himself with Rome defeated and Parthia in the ascendant. What he must have hoped would be a temporary treaty to avoid the Parthian army had now turned into a permanent position of vassalage to a resurgent Parthia. The Parthian heir now had a clear claim to his throne and he had clearly miscalculated when he did not provide Crassus with the cavalry he needed.

For Orodes, the utter surprise and joy at the news must have soon soured when he realised just how the invasion had been defeated. On the one hand, not only had Armenia been brought back under the Parthian wing (as it was prior to 87 BC), but the looming threat of Rome had been met and comprehensively defeated, with the ultimate Parthian prize of Syria (which they had quested after for nearly one hundred years) now lying open and defenceless. On the other hand, however, he will have soon realised just how this had been accomplished and that, although he had eliminated one threat to his throne, he had just greatly increased another.

It is probable that Orodes sent Surenas to meet the Roman invasion purely in order to slow it down, and it is highly unlikely that he was expecting Surenas to win such a decisive victory. Prior to Carrhae, Surenas was already the second most powerful man in Parthia his family was the strongest of the noble houses outside of the Arsacids themselves. Furthermore, Surenas had been responsible for putting Orodes on the throne in preference to his brother, and then responsible for ending the ensuing civil war by defeating said brother. Now, if that were not enough, Surenas had actually managed to comprehensively defeat the Romans in battle (in their worst defeat for 150 years), kill one of Rome&rsquos leading men and single-handedly not only end the Roman invasion, but stop the juggernaut that was the Roman Republic. The acclaim that Surenas would receive from all non-Roman quarters, never mind the Parthian people, army and nobility was going to be immense. No king could stand such acclaim for another and certainly not one as weak as Orodes.

For Orodes, if he was to keep his throne and stop the House of Suren replacing the House of Arsaces on the Parthian throne, there was only one possible answer. Within a year, Surenas, the man who had done what no other had done for generations (defeat a Roman invasion), was put to death on the orders of the king. We do not know the details of how he managed to do this, but the charge used was treason. Possibly he lured Surenas away from his forces with the promise of more honours and then had him swiftly executed. In any event, the man who had accomplished so much was murdered by an undeserving monarch who would soon regret the disposal of his best general.

In the end, therefore, there was only one winner to emerge from the Carrhae campaign. It was neither Crassus, nor Surenas both had met ignoble ends, rather than death on the battlefield. The only clear winner was Orodes II, who began this war as a weak monarch in charge of a weak empire and ended it as the unquestioned ruler of the region&rsquos leading superpower. All that lay ahead was the resumption of Parthian westward expansion and the accomplishment of the long term Parthian goal of reaching the Mediterranean.

Summary &ndash The Battle and the Retreat

We can now see the full scale of the disaster that befell Rome during the Carrhae campaign. The Romans had lost battles before, but never one in such a comprehensive manner and followed by such a comprehensive rout. At the end they were literally chased out of Parthian territory in abject disarray, with their vaunted Roman discipline abandoned and with an &lsquoevery man for himself&rsquo attitude being the order of the day. The retreat from Carrhae was as disastrous as the battle itself and must count as one of the great disastrous retreats in history. The only clear estimates we have for Roman casualties are from Plutarch, who puts the Roman dead at 20,000, with 10,000 captured (see appendix one) and Appian, who merely reports that less than 10,000 escaped to Syria. 259

One aspect that is rarely noticed is just how many of these dead and captured resulted from the retreat, rather than the battle itself (at least 6,000 were killed on the day following the battle). This is not as surprising as it sounds, as there was little hand-to-hand fighting during the battle it was mostly a barrage of arrows, most of which disabled rather than killed outright. The only close-quarter fighting occurred during Publius Crassus&rsquo breakout, during which less than 6,000 Romans died. For the rest of the battle, the Roman casualties were from arrow strikes. Given the prolonged nature of the Roman resistance and the random barrage of the Parthian arrows, it appears that a great many of the Roman casualties were not immediate fatalities, but men who suffered multiple wounds of varying degrees. Many of these would have succumbed to their injures after the battle, due to the fatigue and blood loss, rather than during the battle itself.

Of the Parthian casualties we have no word, though again the only close-quarter combat which the Parthians took part in was during Publius&rsquo breakout. Given that the bulk of this fighting was done by the Parthian cataphracts and the ferocious nature of the battle, even with their heavy armour we can expect them to have taken a considerable number of casualties. The difference here is that Surenas would have taken the bulk of his casualties from amongst his 1,000 cataphracts, rather than across the army evenly. This still gave him more than enough horse archers available to hunt down fleeing Romans, but may explain his apparent inability to tackle the force that assembled around Crassus at the end.

What can be learnt from the battle itself? It certainly would appear that whilst the Romans had the overall numbers they lacked depth in certain areas, most notably the cavalry. This, however, was not an intrinsic flaw of Crassus&rsquo preparations. As the wait until 53 BC showed, Crassus knew that his army was weak in cavalry. This shortage only became the crucial issue because Surenas choose to exploit a known Roman weakness. For the battle he was expecting, Crassus had enough cavalry to keep the Parthian cataphracts occupied. Yet for the battle that Surenas engineered a highly mobile and missile-based one, he was hopelessly outclassed.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the Roman loss at Carrhae was down to one man. Unlike traditional views of the battle, it was not lost because of Crassus&rsquo incompetence, but because of Surenas&rsquo brilliance. Surenas realised that he could not defeat Rome over the length of a campaign past history had taught him that. He did realise, however, that Rome could be defeated in a single battle, if he prepared for it properly. If that defeat was a heavy one, both in terms of the psychological damage and the number of casualties, then the war would be over. Added to this was his realisation that the Roman Republican system had mutated to such an extent that it began to resemble Parthia, in so much as the whole campaign was reliant on a single commander. If he captured or killed Crassus then the invasion would be over. Certainly there would be likely to be another dynast along at some point in the future (most likely to be either Pompey or Caesar), but that would be a different war.

Crassus and the Romans were undone at Carrhae by Surenas&rsquo tactics of turning the battle into a fast-paced cavalry engagement, with no infantry and a total reliance on missile fire. Had the Romans got close enough to the Parthians in sufficient numbers, then their numerical and military superiority at close quarters would have shown. Surenas&rsquo genius lay in stopping the Romans from doing this. Nevertheless, for the Romans the battle itself was not as catastrophic as many would believe. This was not a typical Parthian army that they faced, but one that very much reflected the genius of its commander. As Publius&rsquo breakout had shown, at close quarters the Romans were still a force to be reckoned with, and there must have been points when the outcome of the &lsquobattle within a battle&rsquo was still in the balance. Furthermore, Surenas&rsquo tactics could only be used once, after which the Romans would be ready for them. It is interesting to note that when Caesar was preparing for his Parthian campaign (which was abandoned following his assassination) the sources note that his proposed force was heavy in cavalry. 260

What really did the damage for the Romans, and what turned a terrible defeat into a catastrophic one, was the retreat, or as we should say the retreats. These shambolic manoeuvres doubled the numbers of men lost, either killed or captured. The Roman general was killed, along with the majority of his young aristocratic officers. Both retreats were plagued by a complete breakdown of discipline. During the first retreat, to Carrhae, Crassus&rsquo advance guard did not stay to provide cover, which could have allowed the stragglers to catch up, or to find the groups that had become detached from the main force (such as the force led by Vargunteius). Instead, they deserted their post and fled back to Roman Syria. Of the two officers who are known to have survived, both could be, and indeed were, accused of desertion. Furthermore, there are excellent comparisons to their contemporaries who died. Whilst Vargunteius died fighting a brave last stand, Egnatius fled Parthia and survived in ignominy. Whilst Cassius betrayed Crassus and reached Syria safely, Octavius died fighting to defend him, when he too could have put his own life first. On too many occasions the Roman army was beset by indiscipline from both officers and men. This was an ominous sign for the Roman Republic.

The combination of the defeat and the retreat made the Parthian campaign a total disaster for Rome, the likes of which had not been seen since Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy during the Second Punic War. Of an army of 40,000 plus, barely a quarter of them returned back to Syria. The seemingly unstoppable Roman juggernaut had come off the road altogether. Thus in the first battle and the first war between the two great superpowers of the east, Rome was the clear loser. Given that their rapidly-expanding empire had been built on an almost legendary invincibility, this defeat had serious implications. Not only had the Roman Empire been prevented from advancing, but it was now in clear danger of retreating.

Pushing into Parthia

Antony chose to head north towards Armenia. Once he made his decision, he sent Cleopatra back to Egypt. The reason for Antony’s choice is obvious. Phraates IV, ruler of the Parthian Empire had beefed up his defenses along the Euphrates and was watching Antony closely.

A coin face depicting King Phraates IV of Parthia. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. /CC BY-SA 3.0)

With Cleopatra heading back to Egypt, Antony headed northward from Zeugma on the advice of King Artavasdes of Armenia. The king’s forces of the ancient kingdom of Media Atropatene were with the Parthian forces guarding the Euphrates. Thus, if one desired to enter Parthia, then Media Atropatene was their brief blind spot—and it should be taken advantage of quickly. Moreover, Media Atropatene was rugged terrain, which would negate the use of cavalry, thus forcing the horse-proud Parthians and their allies into hand-to-hand combat with the Roman legionaries.

The coin of Artavasdes II, King of Media Atropatene. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As Antony made his way into Armenia, Artavasdes proudly displayed and offered Antony “6,000 thousand horses drawn up in battle array in full armor and 7,000 foot.”

Antony amassed a Roman juggernaut of thousands of Roman infantry, Iberian and Celtic cavalry, and tens of thousands of troops comprised of other nations. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Informants among the Romans and those nearby watching the progress of their movements relayed the information to Phraates. Knowing that the Romans soon would enter the Parthian client state of Media Atropatene, Phraates sent a message to four hundred Parthian nobles to assemble their cavalry forces, which totaled 50,000, and prepare to forestall, frustrate, and divert, if not ultimately destroy, the Roman forces.

The Battle of Carrhae: A crushing defeat of the unstoppable Roman juggernaut by the Parthian Empire - History

Les Parthes sont l'un des grands peuples qui marquèrent l'antiquité. A la différence des scythes qui partagaient la même origine nord-Iranienne, ces nomades venus d'au-delà du "lac maeotis" (anciennement la mer Caspienne). Leur lente migration, dont le départ est inconnu, s'acheva vers 350 av.jc. entre la mer d'Aral et la caspienne, sur des terres irriguées aux portes de la steppe. Maintenus à distance par les Scythes Royaux à l'est et les sarmates à l'ouest, ils trouvèrent plus de champ lorsque ces derniers furent attirés vers l'ouest et que les premiers lorgnèrent sur l'Inde puissante des Maurya. Les Parthes nous ont laissé une image contrastée. Brillants, voire invincibles cavaliers, redoutables combattants ayant faits de l'archerie à cheval un art de vivre, impressionnants avec leurs cataphractes carapaçonnés, grands inspirateurs de la chevalerie moyen-âgeuse, ils furent les prolongateurs de l'empire perse et cédèrent la place aux Sassanides.
Les Parthes se confondent avec la dynstie des Arsacides. Descendants directs d'Iraniens, ils se voyaient les continuateurs logiques de la Perse, mais par ailleurs, entrant directement en conccurence avec les séleucides, ils se voyèrent à la fois comme leurs conquérants légitimes et comme des continuateurs de leurs culture. Le Phillhéllénisme Parthe ne trouve d'écho qu'au Pont, en Bactriane, et même dans le lointain royaume Indo-Scythe.


(wikipedia) : The Parthian Empire (247 BC - 224 AD), was a major Iranian political and cultural power in the Ancient Near East,[1] and a counterweight and eastern boundary to the Roman Empire of the Mediterranean Basin.
The ruling dynasty came from Parthia ("roughly western Khurasan" in Iran's north-east) and was established and named after Arsaces, therefore the nation is also called Arsacid Empire.
The Arsacids were contemporaries of the Seleucid Empire, and conquered much of its territories unlike the successors of Alexander the Great, they were an indigenous Iranian dynasty - although Seleucus I had married an Iranian princess. Adopting Greek culture, they proclaimed themselves philhellenes "friend of Greeks." The Arsacids' Hellenism was subsequently portrayed by the Sassanians as a betrayal of Iranian values, and used as a justification to overthrow them. This portrayal as morally and culturally corrupt was followed by academia for decades[citation needed], but there is today significant evidence that the Arsacids not only saw themselves as legitimate heirs of the "(divinely bestowed) Iranian glory", but were committed to the idea of an Iranian nation.[3]
At the height of its power, the empire ruled most of Greater Iran, Mesopotamia, and Armenia. But unlike most other Iranian monarchies, the Arsacids followed a vassalary system, which they adopted from the Seleucids. The Arsacid Empire was thus not a single coherent state, but instead made up of numerous tributary (but otherwise independent) kingdoms.
The Arsacids were in an almost perpetual state of war, either to capture and hold territory from the Seleucids, or to prevent vassal states from breaking away, or defending themselves against the Roman Empire in the west and nomadic tribes in the east. Economically and militarily severely weakened by the incessant warring, the infighting of its nobility, the Parthian Arsacids were finally vanquished by the Persian Sassanids, formerly a minor vassal from southwestern Iran, around AD 220. In Armenia, a branch of the Arsacid dynasty continued to rule their kingdom until the 5th century.

Early period :
Around 250 BC, Arsaces I became the leader of the Parni, a north-eastern Iranian tribe. Under his command, the Parni established themselves in Astabene, the administrative capital of which was Kabuchan. In ca. 247 BC, Arsaces was crowned king in "Asaak" (precise location unknown, probably near Kuchan), an event that in Arsacid chronology was understood to mark the beginning of the Arsacid epoch.
Meanwhile, Andragoras, the Seleucid governor of Parthia, proclaimed independence and established his own kingdom. Around 238 BC, Arsaces and the Parni battled Andragoras, during the course of which Andragoras was killed, and Arsaces captured Andragoras' kingdom.
From the base in Parthia (and from then identified as Parthian), Arsaces then ventured westwards and seized Hyrcania. Around 230 BC, the Seleucids mounted a counter-campaign to recapture Parthia, but failed. In 209 BC, by which time Arsaces I had died and control had passed to Arsaces II, the Seleucids under Antiochus III attempted to recapture Parthia again. Antiochus occupied Parthia's capital at Hecatompylus, then pushed into Hyrcania before Arsaces II recognized Seleucid authority.
Soon afterwards Antiochus was defeated by the Romans, which severely weakened the Seleucids and allowed Parthia to maintain its freedom from the Seleucids. Arsaces II died in 191 BC and was succeeded by Phriapatius.
In 171 BC, Phraates I subdued the Mardi tribe, but was killed in battle against nomads. His brother Mithridates I survived the battle and ascended the throne, and ushered in the period in which the Arsacids became a major power.

Rise to major power
Profiting from the continuing erosion of the Seleucid Empire, Mithridates captured Artacona in 167 BC, which disrupted the trade routes to India and effectively split the Hellenistic world into two parts. The Seleucid monarchs resisted Arsacid expansion as best as they could Antiochus IV Epiphanes spent his last years campaigning against the newly emerging Iranian states. After initial successes in Armenia, his sudden death in 164 BC allowed the Arsacids to take advantage of the ensuing dynastic squabbles to make even greater gains.
In the second half of 148 BC, Mithridates I conquered Media. About 141 BC, Arsacid troops overwhelmed Mesopotamia and seized the Seleucid capital of Seleucia. Mithridates I had himself crowned king of Seleucia.
Shortly thereafter, around 140 BC, the Empire suffered the first of the eastern incursions by nomads, perhaps Sakas. Mithridates took command himself, even though the Seleucids were preparing to attempt to retake Seleucia. Mithridates repulsed the invasion in the northeast, and then returned to Mesopotamia, where Demetrius II Nicator, who had made some initial gains, was taken prisoner (Demetrius II would be held hostage for 10 years). Around 139/138 BC, shortly before his death, Mithridates also conquered Elymais.
In 130 BC, Antiochus VII Sidetes succeeded in making substantial gains in Babylonia and Media, but the inhabitants of the Seleucid garrison towns revolted and allied themselves with the Arsacids. In the battle that followed in 129 BC against Mithridates I's son and successor Phraates II, the Seleucids suffered a crushing defeat and Antiochus VII was killed. From then on, the Seleucids ceased to be a serious rival to the Arsacids.
By then, the nomads on the eastern frontier had become a serious problem, and in battles with which Phraates II and Artabanus I were successively killed (in 127 BC and in 124 BC respectively). Simultaneously, a new kingdom was formed in Characene, and its king Hyspaosines, succeeded in conquering parts of Mesopotamia, reaching Babylon.

Artabanus I was succeeded by Mithridates II in 124/123 BC. In quick succession, Mithridates II defeated Hyspaosines in ca. 122 BC, subjugated the northern Mesopotamian kingdoms of Adiabene, Gordyene, and Osrhoene as vassal states, and conquered Dura-Europos in 113 BC. In ca. 97 BC, Mithridates II conquered Artavasdes of Armenia, and put Artavasdes' son (or nephew) Tigranes II on the throne in exchange for "70 valleys" (Strabo 11.14.15). The two countries would be in constant contact with each other from then on.Around 115 BC, Mithridates II was visited by an embassy from the Chinese emperor Wu-ti, and the two agreed to open a trade route, today known as the Silk Road. Around 109 BC, Mithridates II assumed the title "King of Kings" (basileus tōn basiléōn), a title that his successors would also bear.
From ca. 105 BC until his death in ca. 88 BC, Mithridates II rule began to be weakened by a handful of Parthian noble families whose power and influence was such that they frequently opposed the monarch, and would eventually contribute to the downfall of the dynasty. A series of monarchs followed Mithridates II &ndash Gotarzes, Orodes I, Sinatruces, Phraates III &ndash but about whom little but their names is known. The disorder created by the Parthian nobility gave the Armenians the opportunity to reconquer the "seventy valleys" that they had previously ceded to Mithridates II. Phraates III was murdered by his sons Mithridates (III) and Orodes (II), who then began to fight with each other for control.

Parthian-era bronze statue believed to represent General Surena. This statue is on display in the National Museum of Iran.
In early 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate, sought to invade Mesopotamia. He and his army walked into a trap set for them by the Parthian commander Surena, and in the resultant Battle of Carrhae roughly one half of the Roman army of about 40,000 men &ndash including Crassus and his son &ndash were killed. Of the remaining 20,000 men, 10,000 were made captive and only 10,000 were able to escape. The Arsacids did not capitalize on their victory, and Surena was himself executed by Orodes II.
In late 41 BC or early 40 BC, the Arsacid army under the command of Pacorus (son of Orodes II) and Quintus Labienus (who had defected to the Arsacids following the defeat of the Republicans in the Roman civil war) attacked the Romans. The expeditions were initially successful Pacorus took Syria and Judea, while Labienus occupied large parts of Asia Minor. In 39 BC, the Romans counter-attacked, defeating both Labienus and Pacorus and killing both.
Following Pacorus' death, Orodes appointed his eldest son Phraates IV as his successor. Phraates IV promptly murdered his father, and then his other brothers and even his own son. He also began a campaign against the nobility, many of whom left the country. Marc Antony took the opportunity to attack with 100,000 troops in 36 BC. The Roman rear-guard (including provisions and siege engines) was destroyed by an Arsacid attack from the rear, but Anthony continued briefly, briefly laid siege to Phraata/Phraaspa (location unknown) but had to retreat when supplies began to run low. Plutarch (Antonius 50) states 24,000 men were lost in the expedition.

The Parthian Empire and its vassals and neighbors, circa 1 AD.
In 32 BC/31 BC, civil war broke out when a certain Tiridates rebelled against Phraates IV, probably with the support of the nobility that Phraates had previously persecuted. The revolt was initially successful, but failed by 25 BC. The Romans capitalized on the civil war and in 20 BC marched on Armenia. They also renewed their demands for the standards of the legions that had been seized in battle. Phraates complied, and although the return of standards was seen as a great victory in Rome, there was no battle fought the Romans recognized the Euphrates as a frontier, and the Arsacids accepted Roman suzerainty over Armenia.
Augustus also sent Phraates IV an Italian slave-girl named Musa, who became the Arsacid's favorite wife and bore him a son. Hoping to avoid any complications over the line of succession, Phraates sent his first four sons to Rome where they would be protected. But Musa had Phraates poisoned and put her son Phraataces on the throne.

From about AD 220 onwards, a minor Parthian vassal in Persia named Ardashir began to subjugate territories around his city fief, reaching as far east as Kerman, on the margin of the great salt deserts. Artabanus IV proceeded to take counter action in 224, meeting Ardashir in battle at Golpayegan on 28 April 224. Artabanus IV was killed, and the Arsacid Parthian Empire came to an end. The victor crowned himself 'King of Kings of Iran' in 226. Thus the Sassanid Empire was established.

Wide Variations in Style and Function

Some protected the front and neck other designs protected the animal to the back of the saddle. More elaborate and expensive designs protected the rump as well. The armor would be buckled in the front around the animal’s chest, or, in the case of the Dura example (see below), slipped over the head like a poncho. Scaled, and later mailed, head armor was also developed.

The Parthian and Sassanid Persians perfected the tactics that could crush an infantry army such as the Romans almost always deployed. Supported by swift horse archers on its flanks a troop of tightly packed cataphracts moved at a trot across the plain against its foes.
The principal weapon of the heavy cavalry was a 12-foot lance called a kontos. It had a knife-like blade on the business end and a butt spike at the other. Swords, daggers and even the powerful composite bow were auxiliary weapons.

A downward stab of the kontos followed by an upward thrust, sometimes with both hands, was designed to impale and unseat an enemy horseman or ram through an infantry shield. Sometimes battle tactics called for the cataphracts to merely disrupt an infantry line so that the supporting horse archers would have a clear field of fire at a scattered enemy.

Overextended and Undersupplied

With the siege engines destroyed, two legions massacred, and the food running low, Antony had to make quick decisions. Food was his top priority, but as if matters could not get any worse, the Parthians presently arrived in full battle array and challenged the Romans by first shouting insults. Antony understood that if he were to sit still, the Parthians would increase in number and harry his men with hit and run attacks. Antony quickly made a decision to go forage for food. He took “ten legions and three praetorian cohorts of men-at‑arms, together with all his cavalry.” But he had another motive, to get the Parthians to engage in a pitched battle.

After a day’s march, Antony set up camp, but soon he had to take it down, for scouts brought information that the Parthians were on the move. They knew where the camp was and were quickly moving in to envelop him. Once the Roman forces assembled, Antony gave the order to move out.

Antony sought to avoid battle, but made it clear that if the enemy came within range, the cavalry should charge out against them. The Parthians did come within range and the Roman cavalry quickly scattered them. After seeing the success of the cavalry, the Roman infantry joined the charge and frightened the Parthian horses by yelling and clashing their weapons against their shields, causing them to flee.

Antony quickly took advantage of the situation and pursued the enemy. However, it was all for nothing. The infantry and cavalry were exhausted, they could not keep up with Parthian cavalry, and, to make matters worse, they had nothing of substance to show they had been victorious. Their great efforts produced 80 dead and 30 captured. The Romans were beside themselves after losing 10,000 men along with their baggage train and siege engines, when compared to this measly victory, if one could call it that. But in fact, it was not a battle or a victory. Rather, the Parthians were testing the waters by conducting guerilla hit and run attacks, tactics that the Romans had a hard time understanding when facing the Parthians.

The next day, Antony gave the order to head back to Praaspa. While on the move, the Romans encountered a few enemy forces, but as they continued on, their encounters with the Parthians increased until the whole body showed up, challenging them, and attacking from all directions. Antony kept moving to avoid disaster. Eventually the Romans made it safely back to Praaspa. The Parthian forces that attacked Antony were conducting hit and run attacks, for their goal was not to destroy the Roman forces, but rather to demoralize them. In other words, they were tenderizing the Roman forces before commitment to full-scale attack later.

Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once Antony made it back to the siege at Praaspa, he received startling news. While he was away, the Median defenders were able to successfully attack the Roman besiegers, dislodging them from their positions and safely returning behind the walls of the city. This went on for some time. Antony, enraged by the lack of discipline due to his men not standing their ground, decided to take a disciplinary measure known as “decimation,” in which one of every ten soldiers were executed. As for the rest of the besiegers, their punishment was that they would receive rations of barley instead of wheat. But with food running low and Roman foraging parties bringing back more dead and wounded than food, Antony had to do something quick if he wanted his army to survive.

The situation was desperate for the Romn army. (CC BY 2.0)

Phraates felt the same way about his own forces. Summer was gone, the air was getting colder, and he, like Antony, did not want to encamp for the winter. Unlike Antony, he was afraid that many of his men would desert due to the winter distress.

As the siege continued, some Parthians who admired the Romans for their bravery and strong will, were able to ride up next to the Roman cavalry, where they would talk of peace and explain to them that Antony was a fool if he were to stay.

Phraates offered to escort them out of Parthian territory peacefully. The king wanted to end this stagnated war before winter arrived.

The Bloody Battle of Nisibis 217 CE

Artabanus was seeking retribution, and once he entered Roman territory, he burned several cities in Mesopotamia. Word eventually reached Macrinus of the coming Parthians, who were great in number, “including a strong cavalry contingent and a powerful unit of archers and those mail-clad soldiers who hurl spears from dromedaries.”

Macrinus assembled his forces and moved out. The new emperor understood the severity of the situation and took to diplomacy in the hope it could avert battle and restore peace in the region. Macrinus sent the captives and a friendly message to Artabanus, urging him to accept peace and arguing that he was not to be blamed for Caracalla’s actions. Artabanus looked over the letter and rejected it immediately. He responded to Macrinus that if peace were to exist between the two, Rome must “rebuild the forts and the demolished cities, abandon Mesopotamia entirely, and make reparation for the injury done to the royal tombs as well as for other damage.” Further deliberation ceased when the Parthian army arrived outside the Roman headquarters at Nisibis.

At sunrise, the vast Parthian army appeared. Artabanus, along with his men, saluted the sun, as was their custom, and with loud cheers, the cataphract charged while the horse archers fired over their heads. The cataphract horsemen and dromedary riders inflicted considerable damage to the Roman ranks along with the relentless shower of arrows from above.

A Chinese terracotta figurine of a cataphract horse and rider. (386–534 CE) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

But even the Parthians suffered considerable losses since the Romans were at their best in close combat. After a while, the Romans began to feel the pressure and had to make a quick decision while the Parthians were regrouping. The Romans pretended to retreat, and as they did, they threw down caltrops and other pointed devices, which the sand concealed, making them nearly invisible. The Parthians, thinking that the Romans were fleeing the battlefield, gave chase, and when the horses and the soft-footed camels stepped on the sharp devices, they suffered great injury and would throw the rider. The rider was now vulnerable to be captured or killed since his armor weighed him down. Or, if he were to get up, he could not run far, for his robe would trip him.

For two days, the armies fought in this manner, with disastrous results from morning until night, both celebrating in their camps as if they had won. On the third day, the Parthians tried to encircle the Romans, but the Romans had given their divisions and extended their front line to avoid this. The Romans were being worn down by the relentless attacks of the Parthians, who had numerical superiority. But, they could extend their lines to avoid being outflanked for only so long. The consistent Parthian onslaught eventually wore down and demoralized the Romans, causing their lines to collapse and Macrinus to flee, but the arrival of night saved them. With nothing left to gain, especially with the piled-up dead bodies creating barriers, the Romans acknowledged defeat and retired to their camp.

The slaughter of both men and animals was so great that the entire plain was covered. Bodies were piled in huge mounds camels lay in heaps. The number of corpses that littered the battlefield hampered any further attacks, for not only could one not gain a foothold without stumbling but even finding the enemy was a problem since the piled remains of dead comrades blocked each other’s view.

Macrinus, who had lost the respect of his men, knew that he had lost something else, a victory. Macrinus forgot that the forces of Artabanus were merely a militia, as Parthia had no standing army, and he could only hold onto his men for so long because they were unaccustomed to sustained efforts. Having been in the field for some months now, the Parthians had grown weary and wished to return home. With a temporary armistice in place, Macrinus could rethink his plans.

The Parthians carried off their dead and the Romans carried theirs off the field as well. Once the battlefield had been cleared, it was just a matter of time before a renewal of combat was to ensue. Macrinus was not going to let that happen, but it would not have mattered anyway because his men had lost faith in their newly crowned emperor.

Macrinus offered friendship to Artabanus and explained that Caracalla was dead and that he, Macrinus, was the new emperor. To secure peace, Macrinus offered the Parthian king gifts and 200 million sesterces (approximately fifty million denarii). Artabanus thought it over carefully and agreed to peace, since the Romans had “suffered a suitable punishment.” Besides, Artabanus’ own army was terribly wounded. Afterward, Artabanus returned to Parthia while Macrinus hurried to Antioch.

Even though Macrinus had lost the battle, the entire affair was presented as if he’d won. The Roman Senate offered Macrinus the title of “Parthicus,” but he refused it, and rightfully so. But regardless of his feelings, coins were still minted bearing the legend Victoria Parthica. Even though Rome held him as the victor, the fact of the matter is, he shamefully lost, costing Rome much money, but more importantly, prestige.

Menace from the East: The Rise of Parthia

Whilst the histories of this period tend to concentrate on the rise of Rome in the west, we must not forget that at the same time a new empire arose in the east, one that mirrored Rome&rsquos relentless push across the Hellenistic world. Unlike Rome, the Parthians represented a more traditional Hellenistic state, being a feudal empire united by force and ruled over by a dynasty (the Arsacids) that was considered alien to the majority of the peoples they ruled over. Yet the Parthians also represented a new force in history, a warrior race of horsemen from the steppes of central Asia who overran the traditional established kingdoms of the east. The Parthians ruled over an empire that, at its peak, stretched from the borders of India and China in the east to the Euphrates in the west and occasionally beyond. 26 Yet, despite the fact that for nearly four hundred years they were one of the two major superpowers of the ancient world, the Parthian civilisation has long been shrouded in obscurity. Even their very name, &lsquoParthian&rsquo, is a western derivation. 27

There are three major reasons for this. Firstly the Parthian empire was a hegemonic one, rather than a unified civilisation in its own right. The Parthian peoples were small in number and lacking in a distinctive culture, in comparison to the other peoples of the Middle East whom they ruled. Secondly, when the Parthian Empire collapsed in the 220s AD, they were replaced by a new dynasty, the Sassanids, who attempted to erase all traces of the Parthians, who they considered to be a non-native race. The third reason is one of chance, as a number of Parthian histories were written by the ancient Greek and Roman authors (a process given life by their victory at Carrhae), but none of them have survived into the modern world (see appendix three).

Therefore, we face a shortage of native documents and narrative histories, from either the east or the west. What we have left are scraps of information in the remaining western sources, archaeological information and numismatics (again see appendix three), though on occasions these can be contradictory, especially in terms of the origins of the Arsacid dynasty. Until they invaded and annexed Mesopotamia in the 140s BC the Parthians had largely escaped the notice of the more advanced civilisations of the east, but from this point onwards, events involving the Parthians became part of the established historical record. The events of the previous century of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia were also written about from this point onwards, though the chronology of these events is far less certain.

Parthia prior to the foundation of the Arsacid Dynasty

Whilst we have little detail for events in the region of Parthia prior to the 240s BC, we can recreate the broad picture. The region of Parthia lay to the east of the Caspian Sea, crossing what are now the countries of Iran and Turkmenistan. The region was on the edge of the central Asian steppes and was populated by a number of semi-nomadic Scythian tribes. References to the inhabitants of the region can first be found in the historical record when that area was conquered by Cyrus the Great, founder of the First Persian Empire (c.550&ndash330 BC). The exact details of the conquest of this area are not clear, but for the first time the inhabitants of the region came into contact with the wider ancient world and found themselves on the edge of the first great empire of ancient history (stretching from the Indus to Greece). Apparently this new status did not agree with the inhabitants and as early as the 520s BC we find that the region of Parthawa was engaged in a revolt, which was subsequently crushed with a heavy loss of life. 28 From this point onwards it appears that the Parthians remained loyal subjects of the Persian Empire, being combined with the other races of the region into a satrapy (or province). Persian rule would not have been overly harsh for the Parthians, consisting of little more than a Persian satrap (governor) to administer the area on behalf of the Persian king, though it may have forced them to settle down more as a people, given the Persian demands for tribute and men. Certainly it appears that along with the other races that formed the Persian empire, the Parthians supplied troops to their Persian overlords for the various Persian military expeditions, including the Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes (480&ndash479 BC). 29

Other than these occasional glimpses in the sources and the archaeological remains, we have little trace of the Parthian region in these centuries. They remained a semi-barbarous tribal people on the fringes of a great empire, whose exact nature is impossible to determine. All this was to change with the arrival of the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, who invaded the Persian empire in 334 BC. Once again we can find traces of Parthian troops fighting in the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela 331 BC. 30 With the defeat and subsequent death of the Persian &lsquoGreat King&rsquo, Darius III, in 330 BC, the Persian empire collapsed and in its place stood the empire of Alexander the Great. Once again Parthia became a vassal state on the northern edges of another great empire, this time a Macedonian one.

With Alexander&rsquos premature death in 323 BC his dreams of a united ancient world empire died too and his territories were divided up between his various generals. These then entered into a generation of bloody dynastic wars which saw the emergence of a new order in the ancient world: the Hellenistic age. As these wars were well documented by the ancient sources, we find a number of traces of the Parthians in the following years. Upon the death of Alexander, his regent Perdiccas placed the satrapy of Parthia under the control of a man named as Phrataphernes. 31 In 321 BC, when another of Alexander&rsquos generals was in the ascendant, this time Antipater, Parthia found itself ruled by a Philip. 32

By 317 BC the wars had reached Parthia itself. The satrap of Media, a man named Pithon, invaded Parthia and killed its satrap, Philotas (when he had replaced Philip is unknown). Pithon then placed his brother, Eudamus, as ruler of the province, but the other local rulers formed an alliance, invaded Parthia and drove both men from the region. 33 Thus Parthia, along with most of the region, found itself a pawn in a much larger game. What effect these invasions and changes of ruler had on the inhabitants of the region we cannot tell. Certainly it appears that Parthia was a useful region for the contestants to possess and later, at the Battle of Paratacene in 317 BC, we find Parthian troops in the army of Antigonus. Diodorus&rsquo account states that

&lsquoOn one wing he stationed the mounted archers and lancers from Media and Parthia, a thousand in number, men well trained in the execution of the wheeling movement&rsquo. 34

This is our first recorded glimpse of the Parthian military, and shows us the reputation that the Parthian cavalry had, even in this early period.

When the initial round of wars ended and the situation had stabilised (after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC), the Parthians again found themselves with a new overlord, as part of the newly formed Seleucid empire. This new entity was a loose federation of the races spread across the Middle East, from the Indus to the Aegean, which had been annexed by the Macedonian general, Seleucus. However, there were key differences between the empire of Alexander the Great and that of his successor. Firstly, Seleucus had neither the charisma nor the vision of Alexander, who had wanted to unite both the Greek and native peoples into one new civilisation. This new empire was to be ruled by the Greeks for the Greeks and this translated itself into distant rule from the region of Syria, Greek satraps, and a policy centred on the Mediterranean, rather than the east. Thus the Parthians found themselves at a neglected corner of a foreign empire.

Throughout this period, the tribes living in the region of Parthia occupied a space on the very periphery of the ancient world. They were fierce nomadic horsemen but apparently without any form of central government of their own. Although there are initial similarities between the position of Rome and Parthia (both civilisations being on the periphery of the civilised Graeco-Persian world), they represented two diametrically-opposed civilisations. Furthermore, whilst Rome always looked to the Graeco-Persian cultures, the region of Parthia lay at the juncture of a number of civilisations: the Indian states, the Chinese civilisation and the wild nomadic steppes of Central Asia. All of these would have a role in the shaping of this future world power.

The Foundation of the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia

We must now consider the events that led up to Parthian independence and the establishment of the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia, which is one of the most confusing episodes in Parthian history. The struggle centres around two different, but interrelating, processes: the decline of the central Seleucid power and the growth of the regions and tribal migrations. At the centre of all these events is the semi-mythical figure of Arsaces, the first Parthian king. Although a number of histories were written about this process, none survive intact. We have three surviving ancient accounts of how Parthia achieved independence under Arsaces: a mention by the Roman writer Strabo in his work on world geography an epitome (précis) of the history of Pompeius Trogus by a later compiler named Justin and a fragment of a Parthian history by the Romano-Greek writer, Arrian (as reported by three later Byzantine writers, all in different forms). 35 By quoting all of these, we will soon realise the problems that we face in unravelling this process. 36

In Strabo&rsquos Geography, written in the late first century BC or early first century AD, these three passages are relevant:

But when revolutions were attempted by the countries outside the Taurus, because of the fact that the kings of Syria and Media, who were in possession also of these countries, were busily engaged with others, those who had been entrusted with their government first caused the revolt of Bactria and of all the country near it, I mean Euthydemus and his followers 37 and then Arsaces, a Scythian, with some of the Däae (I mean the Apranians, as they were called, nomads who lived along the Ochus), invaded Parthia and conquered it. Now at the outset Arsaces was weak, being continually at war with those who had been deprived by him of their territory, both he himself and his successors, but later they grew so strong, always taking the neighbouring territory, through successes in warfare, that finally they established themselves as lords of the whole country inside the Euphrates. 38

At any rate, some say that Arsaces derives his origin from the Scythians, whereas others say that he was a Bactrian and that when in flight from the enlarged power of Diodotus [the rebel governor of Bactria] and his followers he caused Parthia to revolt. But since I have said much about the Parthian origins in the sixth book of my Historical Sketches and in the second book of my history of events after Polybius [both works now lost], I shall omit discussion of that subject here, lest I may be seen to be repeating what I have already said, though I shall mention this alone, that the Council of the Parthians, according to Poseidonius, consists of two groups, one that of kinsmen [of the king] and the other of wise men and Magi, from both of which groups the kings are appointed. 39

In Justin&rsquos Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, dating to the third century AD, these four passages are most helpful:

The Parthians, in whose hands the empire of the east now is, having divided the world, as it were, with the Romans, were originally exiles from Scythia. This is apparent from their very name for in the Scythian language exiles are called Parthi. 40

Subsequently, when the Macedonians were divided into parties by civil discord, the Parthians, with the other people of Upper Asia, followed Eumenes, and, when he was defeated, went over to Antigonus. After his death they were under the rule of Seleucus Nicator, and then under Antiochus and his successors, from whose great-grandson Seleucus they first revolted, in the First Punic War, when Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Attilius Regulus were consuls [250 BC 41 ]. For their revolt, the dispute between the two brothers, Seleucus and Antiochus, procured them impunity for while they sought to wrest the throne from one another, they neglected to pursue the revolters. 42

At the same period, also, Theodotus, governor of the thousand cities of Bactria, revolted, and assumed the title of king and all the other people of the east, influenced by his example, fell away from the Macedonians. One Arsaces, a man of uncertain origin, but of undisputed bravery, happened to arise at this time and he, who was accustomed to live by plunder and depredations, hearing a report that Seleucus was overcome by the Gauls in Asia, and being consequently freed from dread of that prince, invaded Parthia with a band of marauders, overthrewAndragoras his lieutenant, and, after putting him to death, took upon himself the government of the country. Not long after, too, he made himself master of Hyrcania, and thus, invested with authority over two nations, raised a large army, through fear of Seleucus and Theodotus, king of the Bactrians. But being soon relieved of his fears by the death of Theodotus, he made peace and an alliance with his son, who was also named Theodotus and not long after, engaging with king Seleucus, who came to take vengeance on the revolters, he obtained a victory and the Parthians observe the day on which it was gained with great solemnity, as the date of the commencement of their liberty. 43

Thus Arsaces, having at once acquired and established a kingdom, and having become no less memorable among the Parthians than Cyrus among the Persians, Alexander among the Macedonians, or Romulus among the Romans, died at a mature old age and the Parthians paid this honour to his memory, that they called all their kings thenceforward by the name of Arsaces 44

The following three extracts preserve parts of Arrian&rsquos Parthica, written in the second century AD. The earliest of these is Zosimus&rsquo History from the fourth or fifth century AD.

For after the death of Alexander the son of Philip, and of his successors in the empire of the Macedonians, at the period when those provinces were under the authority of Antiochus, Arsaces a Parthian, being exasperated at an injury done to his brother Tiridates, made war upon the satrap of Antiochus, and caused the Parthians to drive away the Macedonians, and form a government of their own. 45

The next, Synkellos&rsquo Chronology dates to the eighth century AD.

During the reign of this Antiochos, the Persians [Parthians], who were tributaries to them from the time of Alexander the founder, revolted from Macedonian and Antiochid rule. The reason was as follows:

A certain Arsaces and Tiridates, brothers tracing their lineage from Artaxerxes king of the Persians [465&ndash424 BC], were satraps of the Bactrians at the time of Agathocles, the Macedonian satrap of Parthia. According to Arrian, this Agathocles fell in love with Tiridates, one of the brothers, and was eagerly laying a snare for the young man. But failing utterly, was killed by him and his brother Arsaces. Arsaces then became king of the Persians [Parthians], after whom the kings of the Persians [Parthians] were known as Arsacidae. He reigned for two yearsand was killed by his brother Tiridates, who succeeded him, to rule for thirty seven years. 46

The final version is in the Bibliotheca of Photius, writing as late as the ninth century:

In the Parthica he [Arrian] gives an account of the wars between Parthia and Rome during the reign of Trajan. He considers the Parthians to have been a Scythian race, which had long been under the yoke of Macedonia, the Persians having been subdued at the same time, and revolted for the following reason.

&lsquoArsaces and Tiridates were two brothers, descendants of Arsaces, the son of Phriapetes. These two brothers, with five accomplices, slew Pherecles, who had been appointed satrap of Parthia by Antiochus Theos (the Seleucid monarch), to avenge an insult offered to one of them they drove out the Macedonians, set up a government of their own, and became so powerful that they were a match for the Romans in war, and sometimes even were victorious over them&rsquo. 47

Furthermore, we have four later Graeco-Roman sources which comment on the Parthian origins. The first, Quintus Curtius Rufus, from the first century AD, backs the barbarian invasion version of events:

the entire column was brought up by the Parthyaei, a race living in the areas which are today populated by Parthians who emigrated from Scythia. 48

But the other three, from the second and third centuries AD, back the native revolt theory. We have Appian&rsquos account from the second century AD:

He [Ptolemy] invaded Syria and advanced as far as Babylon. The Parthians now began their revolt, taking advantage of the confusion in the house of the Seleucidae. 49

Dio Cassius&rsquo History of Rome written in the third century AD:

when the successors of Alexander had quarrelled with one another, cutting off separate portions (of his empire) for themselves and setting up individual monarchies, the Parthians then first attained prominence under a certain Arsaces, from whom the succeeding rulers received their title Arsacidae. 50

And finally, Herodian&rsquos History of Rome, also from the third century AD:

When these governors quarrelled and the power of the Macedonians was weakened by continual wars, they say that Arsaces the Parthian was the first to persuade the barbarians in those regions to revolt from the Macedonians. Invested with the crown by the willing Parthians and the neighbouring barbarians, Arsaces ruled as king. 51

Thus we can now see the problem with which we are faced. There are two clear strands of thought, which sometimes overlap. One is that Arsaces was the leader of a tribe of Scythian barbarians which invaded and overran the region of Parthia, and the other is that there was a native revolt led by Arsaces who freed Parthia from Seleucid influence. Thus we have full-blown invasion and tribal migration (though Justin downgrades this to a small band of marauders) versus a native revolt led from within. Of the latter, the sources quoted above cannot make their minds up whether Arsaces was Parthian or Bactrian.

In connection with this problem, we have a number of further pieces of information. Firstly, we know that the Parthians had a dating system based on the accession of Arsaces to the throne and that it equates to the year 248/247 BC. 52 Secondly, we know that the neighbouring Seleucid province of Bactria revolted under its governor (as mentioned above, either a Diodotus or a Theodotus) and achieved full independence as the kingdom of Bactria. Added to this is the general collapse of the Seleucid empire in the 240s/230s period. The Third Syrian War (c. 246&ndash241 BC), between the Seleucids and the Egyptians, saw heavy Seleucid losses and a collapse of Seleucid authority. This was followed by a fraternal civil war (c. 240&ndash236 BC) which saw the Seleucid empire decline even further. Thus the decade from 246 to 236 BC was the perfect time for either a revolt or an invasion, with the Seleucids in no position to offer any resistance in the region.

A number of scholars have attempted to construct a narrative that ties all the elements together and attempts to make sense of them. 53 With due respect to them, the existing evidence makes that impossible to do without making great leaps of logic that are not supported by the remaining evidence. Lerner, however, does make one important point, namely that the dating of the founding of the Arsacid era (c. 248/247 BC) does not have to correspond to Arsaces&rsquo conquest of Parthia (which would place it before Seleucid power started to decline, directly contradicting both Strabo and Justin). 54 The date could relate to when Arsaces was crowned king (or ruler) of his tribe (either the Aprani or the Däae). We know that the Seleucids had been having problems with the Scythian tribes of the Caspian region, as it is recorded that the Seleucid general, Demodamus, was sent to the region c. 280 BC to suppress them. 55

With this date issue opened up, we can now look at the two main elements that form the foundation tale, namely that Arsaces was both Scythian and was connected with Bactria. The first thing to note is that none of the sources speak of a full-scale barbarian migration to the area. Strabo states that Arsaces invaded with &lsquosome&rsquo or &lsquocertain&rsquo (TInAZ) of the Däae, rather than many, and Justin tells us that he had a band of marauders. Thus we can conclude that this was not a full-blown barbarian migration, but was merely that Arsaces invaded Parthia, killed the governor, declared himself king and then led Parthia to independence. What are we to make of his Bactrian connection then? Attempts have already been made to connect the two elements of him being Scythian in origin and the Bactrian connection, by stating that his band/tribe attacked Bactria first and then were repulsed, but again there is nothing to back this up in the sources. 56 Given that we know that the governor of Bactria revolted, we can ask ourselves whether during this revolt he used Scythian tribesmen as mercenaries, and if he did so then might they be Arsaces and his warband? At the conclusion of the campaign to free Bactria from Seleucid rule, we can then suggest that Diodotus (the former governor of Bactria, now king) fell out with his mercenaries, as invariably happened, and they then invaded the neighbouring Seleucid province of Parthia and took over.

In this way we can construct a more logical sequence of events, which does not require a tight chronology. In 248/247 BC a man named Arsaces became the warchief of his band/tribe of Scythian barbarians, who occupied the lands bordering the Seleucid empire in the region of the Caspian Sea (in what is now modern Turkmenistan). During the period c. 246&ndash236 BC, three major events occurred in the region which transformed Arsaces from tribal chief to king of an independent country. Firstly, Seleucid authority in the east crumbled due to a series of wars and setbacks in the west, allowing the governor of Bactria to declare independence. Secondly, this governor used Arsaces and his warband in his war of independence, but the two parties fell out at some point. Thirdly, Arsaces and his warband, which included his brother Tiridates, then invaded Parthia, killed the Seleucid governor and established themselves as the new ruling elite of the semi-nomadic province. Once they had established control, Arsaces then made himself king and declared Parthia to be independent. We even have a fragment of an ancient source that tells us where this event actually happened: &lsquothe City of Asaac in which Arsaces was first proclaimed king and an everlasting flame is guarded there&rsquo. 57

Thus we have a chain of events that includes both traditions of Arsaces being Scythian, yet coming from Bactria. This only leaves us the Arrian-inspired events that include the Parthian governor and a homosexual angle. It is again possible that when Arsaces was driven out of Bactria he did not necessarily launch an immediate attack on Parthia, but could have offered his warband&rsquos services to the Parthian governor, against Diodotus of Bactria, with whom he had fallen out. It is then entirely possible that Arsaces promptly fell out with the Parthian governor (perhaps over his brother) and, rather than flee another province and finding Parthia far weaker than Bactria, slew the governor. He then established himself and his men as the new rulers of the Seleucid province of Parthia and declared independence, with himself as king. Thus we have a sequence of events that includes the main themes of each of the surviving sources without stretching the evidence too far or getting tied up with an exact time-frame. We can see that the foundation of the Arsacid dynasty in Parthia came about as a result of the temporary collapse of Seleucid rule in the east, which led to the revolt of Bactria and the Arsacid takeover in Parthia.

Therefore, the former Seleucid province of Parthia gained a new ruling elite a Scythian warband, which seems to have been quickly accepted by the semi-nomadic peoples of the province, especially given a long rule of foreign (Persian and then Greek) governors. The fragments of Arrian all seem to contain traces of the Arsacids claiming descent from the first Persian rulers (the Achaemenids), which was probably done to help justify their rule. 58 It appears that the first capital of an independent kingdom of Parthia was the city of Nisa, which lies just east of the present city of Ashgabat (the capital of modern Turkmenistan), though the Parthian capital moved west as their empire grew. 59

With this new ruling elite in place, the province was transformed into a state in its own right, but one that was still little more than an independent semi-nomadic region, which at the time appeared to possess few factors that would lead to the foundation of a new world power. If anything, it was neighbouring Bactria, with its numerous cities and control of the eastern trade routes, that looked more likely to become the dominant power in the region. Although Arsaces appeared to have established Arsacid rule firmly within Parthia, he still faced two massive external threats. Not only did he have a dominant Bactria on his eastern flank, but he had the Seleucid empire to his west, which, when it recovered from its internal difficulties, would be eager to regain its lost territories.

The Struggle for Independence (c. 240s&ndash176 BC)

Before we examine the drawn out Parthian struggle to remain independent, we must first deal with the problem concerning the length of Arsaces&rsquo reign. Here we have two totally contradictory sources. The first is Synkellos:

He reigned for two years and was killed by his brother Tiridates, who succeeded him, to rule for thirty-seven years. 60

Thus Arsaces, having at once acquired and established a kingdom, and having become no less memorable among the Parthians than Cyrus among the Persians, Alexander among the Macedonians, or Romulus among the Romans, died at a mature old age 61

We have two differing traditions at play here. One has Arsaces ruling for a long reign, being succeeded by his son, who in turn is replaced by a grandson of Tiridates, named as Priapatius (who ruled as Arsaces III). The second tradition has Arsaces being murdered by his own brother (the very one that he had saved from the clutches of the Parthian governor) within just two years, who then goes onto rule for a long reign until he is succeeded by his grandson Priapatius. So which are we to believe?

It is suspicious that none of the earlier sources mention this fate of Arsaces, and that it mirrors the origins of Rome (with Romulus killing his brother Remus). Furthermore as one modern author puts it

the importance of Arsaces I is far greater in the later imagination of the Arsacid Empire . . . Why would the Parthians recall a leader who had held power for not two or three years, and never in fact ruled in Parthia proper at all, on every coin they ever issued, and in the name of every king they ever had 62

Therefore, the most obvious way to proceed is by accepting that Arsaces did indeed rule for a long period, down to c. 211 BC in fact, and was the man who did so much to free Parthia from Seleucid domination and build it up into a strong regional power. Having dealt with this issue, we can now turn our attention to the rest of Arsaces&rsquo reign. It appears that both he and his men did not dwell upon their new status long, as we are told that the Parthians (as we can now call them) soon invaded the neighbouring Seleucid province of Hyrcania and annexed it,thus increasing the size of Parthian territory and Arsaces&rsquo power-base. 63 By c. 236 BC, the Seleucid king, Seleucus II, had settled his empire sufficiently to allow himself to mount a campaign to recapture the provinces of Hyrcania, Parthia and Bactria. Once again the details of the period are sketchy, but it appears that he targeted Parthia first and allied with Diodotus of Bactria in an anti-Parthian pact. This was followed by a full- scale invasion of Parthia and the total defeat of Arsaces, who was forced to flee the country altogether and find shelter with the nomadic tribes of the Caspian steppes. 64 At this point it appeared as though the Parthian rebellion had been crushed and Parthia would be once again relegated to a footnote of history.

Instead, Arsaces managed to engineer a remarkable turnaround. Fortunately for him, it appears that Diodotus of Bactria soon died, leaving his throne to his son. Diodotus II soon realised the danger from a resurgent Seleucid empire it was clear that once Parthia had fallen Bactria would be next. It appears that he therefore reversed the policy of his father and allied with Arsaces, preferring an independent Parthia as a buffer state between Bactria and the Seleucids. With Diodotus&rsquo backing, Arsaces managed to raise a fresh army and challenge Seleucus once more. Justin presents us with the following:

within a short time, Arsaces joined battle with king Seleucus who had come to punish those who had seceded and he [Arsaces] remained the victor. Ever since, the Parthians celebrate this day with solemnity which they have fixed as the beginning of their freedom. 65

Arsaces&rsquo defeat of the army of Seleucus finally established Parthian independence. It appears that this victory was made the more complete by the capture of Seleucus himself, who remained a Parthian hostage for some time. 66 He was eventually released, but the terms must have been the recognition of Parthian independence. 67 With independence secured, Arsaces then established the foundations for a strong Parthia:

while Arsaces, having put the Parthian kingdom in order, assembled an army, laid the foundations of a fortress, strengthened cities, and founded on Mt. Apaortenon the city of Dara, the location of which is such that there is no other city of a more fortified character and more fascinating. 68

During this period, Parthia was at peace with Bactria and had a de facto peace with the Seleucid empire. 69 However, in 223 BC the Seleucids gained a new and powerful king in the person of Antiochus III, also known as the Great, who did much to restore the Seleucid empire to its former glory. The death of Arsaces (c. 211/ 210 BC) and the accession of his son, Arsaces II, 70 along with the breakdown of Parthian-Bactrian relations, presented Antiochus with a golden opportunity to recover the eastern provinces. 71

In 209 BC, Antiochus invaded Parthia with a huge army, quoted in one ancient source as being 120,000 strong, though we must question such an extravagant figure. 72 The new Parthian king, Arsaces II, retreated ahead of the Seleucid forces, destroying the infrastructure as he went. Nevertheless, his forces were defeated at Mount Labus and he could not stop Antiochus invading Hyrcania, where the new Parthian capital of Hecatompylus lay. 73 The details of the rest of the campaign have been lost, but the war ended with Parthia&rsquos defeat and a peace treaty which established a compromise situation. The Arsacid dynasty were recognised as rulers of Parthia, but Parthia itself was reduced to being a federal dominion of the Seleucid empire, without being a formal province. Whilst we have no exact details of the nature of this status, it is clear that Parthia was reduced to being a federated ally of the Seleucid empire. 74 Thus the many gains of Arsaces I had been overturned and, although the Arsacids remained in control of Parthia, the country had lost both its independence and its fledgling empire.

We know nothing else of the reign of Arsaces II and it is probable that he kept a deliberately low profile following his defeat. We know that he was succeeded on the throne by Priapatius, who designated himself as Arsaces III. This was the first time this appellation had been taken by a member of the family whose real name was not Arsaces. According to Justin this took place c.191 BC, but it has recently been argued that Priapatius seized the throne from Arsaces II and established the rule of the junior branch of the Arsacid family, which descended from Arsaces&rsquo brother Tiridates. 75

Though the coup remains speculation it does appear that from this point onward, although they all claimed descent from Arsaces, all subsequent Parthian kings were descended from Tiridates, which may explain the growth of the variant tradition that Arsaces I died quite soon after leading the Parthians to independence and that Parthian power was laid by Tiridates instead.

This defeat and diminution of status was a major setback in the history of Parthia and we know nothing of the internal events that took place for the rest of Priapatius&rsquo reign. The rise of Parthia to superpower status might have ended there if it were not for the help they received from an unusual and unknowing source. As we have seen, with the east secure, Antiochus III turned his attention to the west and mainland Greece, then under Roman protection. A disastrous war with the Romans resulted in the destruction of Seleucid power in the west and shook his whole empire. This defeat appears to have had no immediate effect on Parthia. In c.176 BC Priapatius was succeeded by his son, Phraates (who ruled as Arsaces IV), and it is only from this date that we see the Parthian fightback.

It is difficult to gauge the status of Parthia during the years c. 208&ndash176 BC, given the lack of surviving source material. We can certainly assume that following their defeat and Priapatius&rsquo accession to the throne (whether by coup or not) the Parthians kept a deliberately low profile in fear of angering Antiochus III. We do not know for certain that the Seleucids left a garrison in Parthia, but given the trouble that they had caused the empire, we can assume that it was the case. We can also assume that Antiochus&rsquo war and defeat against the Romans would have seen that garrison removed and thus allowed the Parthians to rebuild their own forces and re-establish her independence from Seleucid interference. Following the peace terms imposed on them by Rome, the Seleucids were unlikely to be able to stage a campaign on the scale of Antiochus&rsquo invasion of 209 BC, virtually guaranteeing Parthia&rsquos independence from them.

Thus the actions of Rome on one side of the ancient world saw important repercussions on the other, revealing the delicate balance of the ancient world order. Once again we can see that Rome&rsquos interference with the established Hellenistic order was allowing new states to emerge that would ultimately threaten Roman security, a result of Rome&rsquos haphazard policy with regard to the east.

The Rise of a New Power (176&ndash138 BC)

With Rome&rsquos humbling of the Seleucid empire, the way was open for Parthian expansion to the west. It is the next two monarchs, Phraates I (c.176&ndash171 B.C) and Mithradates I (c.171&ndash138 B.C), that led the Parthians on the road to imperial status. Although he only reigned for five years, Phraates disregarded over thirty years of Parthian stagnation and launched aggressive wars against his immediate neighbours, both to the west and south, subduing the tribes that lived there. Upon his death, this expansionism was taken up by his younger brother, Mithradates I (no relation to the monarchs of Pontus). At the same time as Mithradates&rsquo accession, the king of Bactria was overthrown by a usurper, plunging Bactria into chaos. Mithradates took this opportunity to invade Bactria (Parthia&rsquos closest rival in the region) and annexed the bordering territories of Tapuria and Traxiana, though we are unsure of the exact date of this campaign (most likely during the early 160s BC).

A potential threat to Parthia from the new Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, was averted in 163 BC, when he was murdered whilst campaigning in the east of the empire. With Bactria cut down to size and the death of the Seleucid king, Mithradates again showed his strategic abilities by launching an invasion of the Seleucid-controlled region of Media (a major regional power in its own right) in the 150s BC (though again this is hard to date exactly). After a long and protracted war, whose exact details are lost to us, by 148 BC Media had been conquered. Rather than ruling it directly, Mithradates appointed a governor to rule the province in his name, thus creating the first proper imperial province of the Parthian empire. This was not the only way in which the Parthian empire was taking shape, as this conquest had brought Parthian territory to the river Tigris itself, beyond which lay Mesopotamia, the cradle of all great eastern empires, containing the great cities of Babylon and Seleucia.

Building upon his already-great success, Mithradates determined to continue and launched his most ambitious campaign yet. In 141 BC he invaded Mesopotamia, thus reversing two hundred years of conquest from the west. Defeating a general of the Seleucid king, Demetrius II, Mithradates accepted the surrender of the strategic cities of Seleucia and Babylon and had himself re-crowned as &lsquoKing of Kings&rsquo in Seleucia. 76 However, Mithradates had to break off the campaign to return to Parthia proper for what reason we do not know, though border raids by barbarians are suspected. Nevertheless, the Parthian army had developed in such a way that he was able to leave a force to complete the conquest of Mesopotamia, under an unknown general, whilst he himself campaigned on Parthia&rsquos eastern borders, perhaps to repel raiders from China.

In his absence, the Seleucid king attempted to re-capture Mesopotamia but was defeated in battle by Mithradates&rsquo general (in 139 BC). The king himself was captured and transported back to Parthia, where he lived as an honoured captive and was even married off to one of Mithradates&rsquo daughters. Mithradates returned to the west in person and added the minor kingdom of the Elymaeans to the Parthian empire, as well as the old Persian capital city of Susa. In addition to this territory, the Parthians took a considerable amount of loot with them back to Parthia, taken from the Greek cities and temples of the region.

Having achieved these great conquests, in the winter of 138/137 BC Mithradates died peacefully, being justifiably labelled as the true founder of the Parthian empire. On his accession, Parthia was a small regional power just recovering from forty years of Seleucid domination. On his death, thirty-three years later, the Parthian empire was the unquestioned dominant power in the region. Bactria had been humbled, Media and Mesopotamia had been conquered and the Seleucid empire driven back west of the Euphrates. The reigning Seleucid king had been made a captive and a subservient son-in-law. For the first time in two hundred years, the great cities of Susa, Babylon and the whole Mesopotamian region were free from Greek rule. In historical terms the tide had turned and the Greek advance eastwards had now turned into a retreat back towards the Mediterranean.

During these years, the Parthian army had developed into a devastating fighting machine, defeating armies from both the east and the west. Although its exact nature is unknown, we can surmise that it was in this period that the Parthians perfected their legendary cataphract cavalrymen to complement their mounted archers. Certainly by 138 BC, just as Rome was the dominant power in the Mediterranean, Parthia was dominant power in the east, and designated heirs to the first great Persian Empire. An attack on the remnants of the Seleucid empire and a push for the Mediterranean seemed inevitable, especially given the presence of a captive Seleucid monarch who could act as a puppet ruler.

Unlike the rise of the Roman empire in the west, however, the Parthian empire had one crucial difference as with all eastern empires, they were reliant upon the brilliance of the individual monarch. Arsaces had established a strong independent Parthia, but his successors had overseen its decline. Mithradates had overseen Parthia&rsquos rise to being the region&rsquos superpower, but could his successors hold onto it?

The only possible way out of this dilemma was to create a command structure that would allow competent generals to develop and as the Parthians&rsquo Mesopotamian campaign had shown, there were certainly encouraging signs in this direction the crucial victory over the Seleucid forces had been won by one of Mithradates&rsquo generals (whose identity is lost to us). Furthermore, the Babylonian chronicles record that the Parthian king appointed five generals to command the Parthian forces in the region. From their names, Antiochus, Nikanor, Hyspaosines, Philinos 77 and Enius 78 , it appears that generals of Greek or local origin were employed there rather than using Parthian generals.

This policy had both benefits and drawbacks. The benefit being that they had local knowledge and could rule the area in Parthia&rsquos name without looking like foreign oppressors. Furthermore, they would not be a threat to the Parthian throne, as a powerful Parthian general would be. The drawback was that their loyalty could be in question, as happened when the general Antiochus betrayed the Parthians to a local regional power, Elam. 79 However, we know little of the Parthian military command structure or how much the king relied upon non-Arsacid generals overall.

By contrast, the Romans in this period did not suffer from this weakness. The nature of the republican system and the ruling oligarchy provided Rome with a multitude of able commanders (along with the inevitable poorer ones). This is one of the key factors that allowed for the seeming relentless progress of the conquests of the Republic. When the Romans eventually abandoned their republic in favour of an empire then they too succumbed to this &lsquodilemma of command&rsquo.

Collapse and Recovery (138&ndash88 BC)

In the case of Parthia, Mithradates&rsquo son, Phraates II, came to the throne in 138 BC, but the decade of the 130s saw little in the way of preparations for a campaign against the remnants of the Seleucid empire. It appears that the whole Seleucid issue had been allowed to deteriorate. Despite his luxurious treatment, the captured Seleucid king, Demetrius, attempted to escape captivity and reach his homeland on two separate occasions, both of which ended in his capture and subsequent pardon. Furthermore, the situation in the Seleucid empire itself had stabilised. Defeat and the loss of Mesopotamia and the king had led to a usurper, Tryphon, seizing the throne, which sparked off yet another Seleucid civil war. Yet the Parthians failed to capitalise on this opportunity, perhaps waiting for the situation to deteriorate even further. Instead, however, a &lsquolegitimate&rsquo Seleucid claimant seized the throne and unified the empire under his leadership. This was Antiochus VII, who was perhaps the last great leader the Seleucids produced. With the throne secure, he immediately turned his attention to recovering Mesopotamia, if not the rest of the eastern lands.

This failure to capitalise on Mithradates&rsquo conquests could be used as evidence for the weaknesses of the Parthian (and Seleucid) systems, namely their reliance on kings with dynamism. In their defence, it was possible that the Parthians were distracted by the migratory activities of the tribes on their Chinese border, who we know to have been active in this period. In any case, the Parthians certainly neglected events in the west and paid the price for it. In 130 BC, Antiochus VII invaded Mesopotamia with an army of over 80,000 men (the largest for a generation). 80 Again we possess little exact detail for the subsequent war, but what is clear is that it was a disaster for the Parthians, who were defeated in three separate battles. We only know the location of one of them, on the River Lycus, where the Parthian general Indates was defeated. 81

These defeats were followed by the revolt of the city of Seleucia and the murder of its Parthian governor, Enius, with the city of Susa soon following. 82 Clearly this showed the tenuous nature of the Parthian conquest of what had been Greek territory for two hundred years (again another factor to bear in mind for the later Roman campaign).

By the end of the year, Parthia had not only lost Mesopotamia, but also the military reputation that Mithradates had taken three decades to establish. As a consequence, Antiochus advanced into Parthian-held Media, gaining allies from all the tributary races and cities that had previously sworn allegiance to the Parthians. In a move that showed that he was clearly not in the same mould as his father, Phraates attempted to negotiate, although it is possible that he was buying time. Antiochus&rsquo terms were the destruction of the Parthian empire through the return of all of its conquered territories, outside of Parthia proper, to the Seleucid Empire.

Finding the terms totally unacceptable and being unable to defeat Antiochus in open battle, Phraates resorted to underhand tactics. Firstly, he released Demetrius and sent him back to Syria, something that would undermine Antiochus VII secondly, he set about undermining Antiochus&rsquo military position in Media. Antiochus had ended the campaign of 130 BC by wintering in Media rather than withdrawing back to Mesopotamia. Thus the burden of feeding and housing such a large army fell on the native populations of the region, who naturally resented this treatment at the hands of the Greeks. This resentment was fanned by Parthian agents into full scale revolt.

In the spring of 129 BC in a superb piece of planning, the cities of Media rose up and attacked the scattered, resting army of Antiochus, just as Phraates took to the field himself and advanced into Media. Despite being advised to retreat, Antiochus offered battle, which, given the disorganised nature of his army, was only ever going to have one outcome. The Seleucid army was destroyed, along with Antiochus and his dreams of the restoration of the Seleucid empire. Phraates had succeeded through a use of cunning and brute force, where brute force alone had failed. Phraates advanced into Mesopotamia, which was easily re-conquered. Having turned defeat into victory, Phraates prepared for an invasion of Syria, now controlled by Demetrius once more. Victory would have put the Parthians on the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East, some sixty years before the Romans annexed it. Unfortunately for the Parthians however, imminent victory in the west was undermined by a new perilous threat from the east.

For a decade or more, the lands bordering Parthia&rsquos eastern border had seen the advance warnings of a full-scale barbarian migration, as periodically occurred all over the ancient world. This is perhaps what had caused Mithradates to return eastwards in the 130s BC and what had delayed Phraates in his campaign against the Seleucids. Pressures in the northern steppes had led to a fierce nomadic tribe known as the Saka moving into the region adjoining the Parthian border, from where they mounted raids across the border. Phraates had clearly tried to solve this problem earlier by a policy of co-option, as the sources indicate that a large number of Saka tribesmen had been hired to fight for Parthia in the war against Antiochus. However, they were still making their way westwards towards Media when Antiochus&rsquo army was destroyed. Unwilling to demobilise empty handed, they then turned on the Parthians and ravaged the territories of the empire, penetrating as far west as Mesopotamia. 83

Phraates&rsquo policy of co-option had allowed a dangerous barbarian enemy into the heart of the empire. It was a lesson that he was slow to learn. In the short term, the Parthians&rsquo problem with the Saka became considerably worse, when it turned out that the tribesmen who were now raiding their territory were merely the advance guard, with the whole tribe approaching Parthia&rsquos northeastern border. Between the Parthians and the Saka lay the kingdom of Bactria, which proved to be no match and was devastated.

Abandoning the invasion of Syria, Phraates made for the eastern border, but not before making an ill-advised and ultimately fatal error. Believing that he would need a large force to defeat the Saka, he conscripted a large number of the Greek soldiers from Antiochus VII&rsquos defeated army. He chose to ignore the fact that the Greek cities had recently revolted and that the Saka mercenaries were still ravaging his territory. With an army containing a large number of Greeks soldiers whom he had just defeated, Phraates returned to the east to engage the Saka in battle.

In 128 BC, in an unrecorded location on Parthia&rsquos eastern border, the Parthian army met the Saka barbarians in battle. During the battle the inevitable occurred when the Greek soldiers deserted the Parthians, allowing them to be routed and slaughtered. Phraates himself perished in the fighting, making him the first Parthian king to die in battle. Parthia now found herself fighting for her existence in the face of a barbarian onslaught and the situation soon got worse. The new king, Artabanus I (the uncle of Phraates) resorted to buying the Saka off, which appears to have worked in the short term. However, a second wave of migrating barbarians followed the Saka, named in the sources as the Tochari, and Artabanus met them in battle in the region of Bactria in 124 BC. He too was killed in battle (at the point of a poisoned arrow) and another Parthian army met defeat (the fifth in a decade). 84

When Mithradates II succeeded to the throne in 124 BC, he faced an empire in crisis. Not only were the eastern borders, nearest to the Parthian homeland, being overrun by barbarians (who had killed the last two kings in battle), but the province of Mesopotamia was undergoing serious problems of its own. The governor installed by Phraates II in 129 BC, Himerus (or Euhemerus), had engaged in a policy of retaliation against the Greek inhabitants for their revolt the previous year, thus provoking them to the point of open insurrection once more. 85 Furthermore, a new kingdom had been created on the mouth of the Tigris (where it emptied into the Persian Gulf). During the several conquests of Mesopotamia in the preceding decade, the minor city of Antiochia had found itself ignored by both warring sides, due to its southern position. The Seleucid governor, Hyspaosines, seized the opportunity and declared independence, changing the city&rsquos name to Spasinou Charax (the city of Hyspaosines) and making it the capital city of the new kingdom of Characene. Taking advantage of the Parthian weakness, he then invaded Mesopotamia proper and by 127 BC had conquered both Babylon and Seleucia. 86

Thus Mithradates II faced problems in both the east and the west of the Parthian empire. For the next thirty years he worked tirelessly as ruler of Parthia and re-established the empire as a major power. The exact details of his campaigning have been lost to us, but it appears that the barbarians in the east had eased up on their westward push, settling in the Afghan regions of Helmand-Quandahar and the Punjab in India. This allowed Mithradates to deal with the western problems first. In 122 BC he re-invaded Mesopotamia and attacked the kingdom of Characene. Within the year the Parthians had re-occupied both Babylon and Seleucia and had soundly defeated Characene, which now became a vassal state of the Parthian Empire.

With the west secured, Mithradates turned his attention back to the east. Again our sources provide us with little detail, but it is clear that he fought a number of campaigns against the barbarian tribes on, or within, the borders of the Parthian empire. We have no dates, but Chinese sources appear to indicate that the Parthians had secured the border city of Merv by 115 BC. Other sources state that he defeated the barbarians on a number of occasions and added a number of Bactrian cities to the his empire. 87

It is clear that by c.100 BC the eastern border of the empire was secure enough to allow the trade routes with the Han empire of China to flourish (leading to the establishment of the great Silk Road). Chinese records show that the Han dynasty sent an embassy to the court of Mithradates sometime in the period 120&ndash90 BC to formalise trade relations, showing both the stability and the powerful role of the Parthian empire (see appendix III). It is clear that Mithradates II had ended the barbarian threat which had threatened the very existence of the empire, for which he was given the title &lsquoThe Great&rsquo.

These threats dealt with, Mithradates began a fresh period of expansion in the west, attacking and defeating the newly emerging kingdom of Armenia. He did not occupy the territory, but he did take hostage the heir to the Armenian throne, Tigranes (who, as we have seen, later went to war with the Romans), to ensure future Armenian good behaviour. When the old king died in 94 BC, Tigranes was installed on the throne of Armenia with the aid of Parthian forces, in return for which the Parthians received seventy valleys worth of territory. 88

Thus, by the late 90s Mithradates II had not only stabilised the Parthian Empire but had once again established it as the superpower of the region. His eastern borders were secure and had established firm relations with the Han empire of China. To the west, Mesopotamia was firmly under Parthian control and no further threats were posed by either Seleucids or Characenes, while Armenia was now a subservient ally. Parthian policy appeared to have changed from one of outright annexation to one of suzerainty over its neighbours.

The focus of Parthian rule had moved westwards with the seat of government moving from Parthia proper into Mesopotamia and a new winter capital city of Ctesiphon, on the Euphrates (the summer capital being Ectabana in Media). The reasons for this are unclear, but, as the Saka invasion had shown, the old Parthian capitals of Nisa and Hecatompylos were vulnerable to barbarian incursions from the northern and eastern steppes. The province of Mesopotamia was now firmly in Parthian hands and provided a western outlook to the empire, and the monarchy inherited a more Hellenistic nature. Having a capital city in Mesopotamia also provided a powerful political and cultural statement (in many ways mirroring Peter the Great&rsquos decision to move the Russian capital from Moscow to St Petersburg in the 1700s). In addition, with all the great eastern empires having centred their civilisations on that region, the Parthians could claim to be the natural heirs to the Persian empire, rather than the failing, and alien, Hellenistic states.

It was also in Mithradates&rsquo reign that the Parthians took their first step in relations with the wider western world, in the form of the first contact between Parthia and Rome. Whilst both empires would have been aware of the other, neither would have considered the other a serious threat prior to the 90s BC (though had Parthia invaded Syria then this would have undoubtedly changed). As we have seen, by the 90s BC Rome had realised that their neglect of the east had allowed new states to rise from the ashes of the Seleucid empire, in particular Mithridates VI of Pontus. By 92 BC, Rome had become so alarmed by the rise of Mithridates VI that the Senate commissioned the governor of Cilicia, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to intervene in the Asia Minor region and restore the independence of the kingdom of Cappadocia (which had been annexed by Mithridates VI). Whilst for Rome, the immediate threat was the kingdom of Pontus, they would have been well aware of the advance of the Parthian empire. Armenia had recently been defeated in battle and was now under Parthian influence. As detailed in chapter one, the Romans were never slow in spotting, or even inventing, new dangers to their much sought after security.

The details of how the Romans and Parthians arranged their first meeting are unknown, but what is known is that Sulla met with a Parthian ambassador, Orobazus, by the Euphrates. Whilst the details of the meeting are obscure, it does appear that there was a sharp cultural difference between the two sides (inevitable given one was an oligarchic republic and the other an oriental monarchy). It does not appear that either participant had the authorisation to conclude a treaty, so the meeting took the form of a mutual exchange of goodwill. Orobazus appears to have been treated in high-handed fashion by Sulla, a fact which cost the former his life upon his return to the Parthian court. 89

Whatever the result, it is highly doubtful that the Parthians and Romans agreed on a line of demarcation between the two empires, as this would have run against both sides&rsquo aims and interests in the region. In any event, soon after this meeting, Tigranes of Armenia, a client of Parthia, conducted an agreement with Mithridates VI of Pontus, placing the Parthians, if not on Pontus&rsquo side, then nearer them than the Romans. Events in 88&ndash87 BC did little to calm Roman fears, as the Parthians expanded this policy of suzerainty over the remnants of the Seleucid empire, which was once again in the midst of another civil war. It appears that the Parthians intervened on the side of one contender, Philip, against the reigning king, Demetrius III. Demetrius was defeated and captured by Parthian forces and, like his namesake, was sent into comfortable exile in Parthia proper at the court of Mithradates II. 90 An intervention of this sort placed the Seleucid empire (what was left of it) firmly in the orbit of Parthia, whereas it had traditionally fallen to Rome to interfere in Seleucid affairs in this way. It had shown how far the balance had tipped between Seleucia and Parthia and how far Roman influence had waned in the region, especially given the invasion of the Roman empire by Mithridates VI in 88 BC and Rome&rsquos own subsequent descent into civil war.

Thus the reign of Mithradates II, shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of the Parthian empire. When controlled by a monarch of ability and determination, the Parthians proved to possess a formidable military machine, capable of defeating any of their neighbours. This military success was accompanied by a shrewd policy of economic and diplomatic links with the states on her borders. By the end of Mithradates&rsquo reign (87 BC), the Parthian empire was the unchallenged master of the Middle East, with a firm hold on Mesopotamia demonstrated by the establishment of a new capital on the Euphrates. The states not directly under her control, such as Armenia and the Seleucid empire had been humbled and brought under Parthian influence. In the east, her borders were secure and trade was flourishing with China, benefiting the Parthian economy immensely. The barbarians had been defeated and old rivals such as Bactria had fallen.

But was this due to the strength of the Parthian system or the brilliance of one man? The answer is of course an element of both, but Parthia&rsquos history had shown that in the hands of an able monarch they were capable of massive expansion, as with Arsaces I and Mithradates I. Yet both these periods had been followed by periods of massive decline, as less-talented monarchs proved unable to build upon these achievements. Was this again to prove the case in the aftermath of Mithradates II?

The Eclipse of Parthia (87&ndash58 BC)

It is difficult to say who exactly was ruling the Parthian empire in this period, as for the years from 87&ndash70 BC we appear to have three kings Gotarzes I, Orodes I and Sinatruces I. All three appear to have overlapping reigns, including Gotarzes who first appears with the title &lsquoKing of Kings&rsquo circa 91 BC. Whilst there are no records of a civil war in these years, it is clear that the Arsacids in particular and their empire in general entered a period of confusion and uncertainty, which some scholars refer to as a Parthian &lsquoDark Age&rsquo. It is likely that Gotarzes and Orodes were in conflict with each other. By 76 BC, however, we hear of a Sinatruces being offered the throne, a man who was 80 years old at the time. It appears that he was the candidate raised to bring an end to the dissensions between the rivals and formed a new branch of the Arsacid line.

The effects of this internal strife were clear and twofold. Not only was the Parthian empire not able to capitalise on the seeming collapse of Rome&rsquos eastern empire (following the invasion of Mithridates VI of Pontus), but their own position as the dominant power in the Middle East was severely challenged. Seeing both Rome and Parthia collapsing into civil strife, Tigranes of Armenia threw off the role of vassal state and made a bid to turn Armenia into the regional power. On the death of Mithradates II, and feeling that all personal ties were now broken, Tigranes launched an invasion of both the Parthian and Seleucid empires. Northern Mesopotamia, untouched for forty years, fell to the Armenians, as did the whole of the remaining Seleucid empire (see map 2). He invaded Media and burned the Parthian imperial palace there to the ground. 91 The only check on the advance of the Armenian armies proved to be the arrival of the Roman armies in the region, in the 70s BC.

In 70 BC, the aged Sinatruces died and his son Phraates III came to the throne, ushering in a period of relative internal stability. The position he inherited, though far worse than the one left by Mithradates II, showed signs of improving, but only thanks to the actions of the Romans, as will be detailed later. Phraates&rsquo reign came to a sudden end in 58/57 BC when he was murdered in a palace coup organised by two of his sons, Mithradates III and Orodes II. Once again the Parthian monarchy collapsed into instability and on this occasion, with Rome free of civil war, it gave their enemies the opportunity they had been looking for.

We can see that there are parallels between the eastward expansion of the Roman Republic and the westward expansion of the Parthian Empire, though they took different forms. Ostensibly Parthian expansion was created by a desire for independence, borne out of the revolt of the 240s BC and it was clear from the start that for Parthia to survive the Seleucid empire needed to be overthrown. Likewise, no conscientious Seleucid king would accept the loss of their eastern territories, not to mention the creation of a dangerous rival. Up until the end of the reign of Mithradates II, the viability of the Parthian state was still at stake. Unlike Rome, however, many of the Parthian problems were of their own making. Periods of expansion, under Arsaces I, Mithradates I and Mithradates II were all followed by periods of contraction. This was contrasted with the Roman Republic which expanded and rested, but rarely contracted (the Pontic invasion of 88 BC being the notable exception).

Central to this whole process was the Parthian monarchy. A strong monarch could utilise Parthia&rsquos military and economic powerbase to dominate and ultimately conquer her neighbours in the east, which led to them becoming the superpower of the region. Yet a weak monarch, or a series of weak monarchs, could throw all this good work away, as happened in the 200s, the 120s and 70/60s BC. Nevertheless, despite the system&rsquos unpredictability, the Parthians ultimately always seemed to find a monarch who could undo a period of decline and take the empire to new heights.

Thus, in the 50s BC a clash appeared to be inevitable between two seemingly unstoppable juggernauts, one driving eastwards and the other westwards. Neither had shown any inclination to live with a rival of equal power. The very existence of a state with the power to rival their own was enough for the other to feel threatened.

The Roman oligarchy saw any other powerful state as a threat to their security and a potential invader of Italy, as the recent experiences with Mithridates VI had shown. However, a threat to them was also seen as a golden opportunity for glory and economic gain, as the clash between commanders for the opportunity to fight Mithridates VI had also shown. Thus the Romans operated from a mixture of paranoia and opportunity. To the Parthian kings and the aristocracy any rival power was considered a threat to their existence and a potential invader of the Parthian homeland, as their recent experiences with Armenia had shown. Thus, both states would have felt threatened by the presence of the other, a situation that could only have a single outcome: war.

Most decisive battles of each era

Lastly, I think The Mongol Invasion of Europe should be enlisted during 1240s. Well, there were no decisive battles that defeated the Mongolians because the Europeans never defeated the Mongolians as every others could not in Asia, but if the Khan in China had not been died, Batu's Army would have proceeded to Paris as they swore to God they would see the Great Sea (the Atlantic Ocean) when they left for the invasion.

Mongolians defeated Hungarians, allaince of Christian German Calvary, and Polish. Well, after Batu returned to Mongol, and they decided who was gonna be their Khan, and later, the Khan sent a letter to the Pope in Rome, which they still have the original one.

But it was secrete document that not even a few people can see, and I wonder why it is probably because the Khan treated the Pope as his subject and vasal state, and some kind of that stuff.


Point1: The Mongol abandonment of the invasion of Europe was very decisive in Europe&#8217s and Asia&#8217s history, but there was no battle. We are not talking about decisive events, if so I would have included it, but only decisive battles.

Point2: Battles that Check empires are decisive such as Carrhe and the Teutoberg Forest because of what might have happened if the Romans had won. If Rome had conquered Germany or Parthia then the effects on European and Asian history are incalculable. Salamis &#8216merely checked&#8217 the Persians, but because it allowed Europe to develop free of political oriental influence thus it is considered decisive. If the empire had previously been unstoppable and then was stopped the historical consensus seems to think is decisive. I hope this explains it.

George Clemenceau: "America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization."

A nation," wrote the French philosopher Ernest Renan "is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors."


Battle of Kadesh - 1274 B.C. (First Battle recorded in excess)

Battle of Badr - 624 A.D. (Decisive Battle in Muhammed's war)

Battle of Panipat - 1526 (Beginning of Mughal Empire)

2. Battle of New Orleans - 1815

3. Bull Run/ Manassas I - 1861

7. Battle of the Somme - 1916

11. Battle of Leyte Gulf - 1944

13. Operation Eagle Claw - 1980

14. Operation Anaconda - 2002

15. Battle of Debecka Pass - 2003

Tuman bay

Tuman bay


Since it's come up a lot, let me just give a quick history lesson. Waterloo was a decisive battle, but it was Leipzig in 1813 that effectively undid Napoleon. Waterloo just confirmed the result. I'm going to give a series of decisive battles in each era since choosing just one is a hopeless adventure. I originally posted the following list in another forum:

-Battle of Marathon (490 BCE): One of the first meetings between 'East and West,' it was also one of the most decisive. The Greeks inflict 6,400 casulaties on a Persian army of 25,000 and Darius' campaign is brought to a premature halt.

-Battle of Leuctra (371 BCE): Epaminondas and Thebes utilize unique tactics to crush the Spartan army and 'deliver' Greece from the Spartan yoke. Unfortunately, Theban domination of Greece is itself short-lived.

-Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE): A Greco-Macedonian army under Alexander defeats a much larger Persian force for the last time, clearing the way to Persepolis and all but bringing the end of the Persian Empire.

-Battle of Cannae (216 BCE): Arguably the greatest tactical masterpiece in all of military history, Hannibal routs the last major Roman army in Southern Italy, causing about 50,000-60,000 losses out of 80,000.

-Battle of Carrhae (53 BCE): The famed 'Parthian shot' seals Roman chests with a hail of arrows, and just like that Crassus' army disintegrates. Crassus is captured and killed.

-Battle of Actium (31 BCE): The final action in the Roman Civil Wars happens to be a naval battle, and what a fine one it was too. Anthony and Cleopatra are defeated by Octavian, who four years later goes on to make Rome an empire.

-Battle of Guandu (202): Despite being outnumbered nearly 10-to-1, Chinese military maestro Cao Cao puts down a rebellion under Yuan Shao, the latter breaking with 70,000 casualties out of an army of perhaps 120,000.

-Battle of Yarmuk (636): Undeniably one of the most significant battles in all history, a Muslim army under Khalid bin Walid annihilates the Byzantines and overruns Syria. This battle provides the basis for the modern domination of the Middle East and North Africa by Islamic societies.

-Battle of Tours (732): A Frankish army under Charless 'the Hammer' Martel destroys a larger Muslim invading force under Abdul Rahman. The battle is often characterized as having 'saved the West,' but in reality it was probably more of a huge symbolical victory. Muslim raids into the Rhone Valley of Southern France would continue for some time even after their defeat at Tours.

-Battle of Hattin (1187): A Crusading army is thrashed by Saladin's Muslims. The battle leads to the fall of Jerusalem, a prize that Christendom has to wait many decades to regain.

-Battle of Bouvines (1214): Often hailed as the battle that 'made modern France,' a Flemish-German army under Emperor Otto IV is destroyed by French King Philippe II and his vaunted knights. The breakup of the Anglo-German alliance contributes mightily to the resulting Magna Carta in 1215, when English nobles force King John to give them some more rights and privileges.

-Battle of Grunwald (1410): Polish-Lithuania abruptly halts and reverses decades and decades of expansion by the Teutonic Order.

-Battle of Agincourt (1415): The flower of French nobility goes down in this battle where Henry V nearly wins the Hundred Years War for England. Poor terrain leads to bungled French attacks, and had Henry V lived just a little longer than Charles VI, history might look very different today.

-Battle of Pavia (1525): Although certainly not the first time gunpowder weapons are used, Pavia is their most impressive showing to date. An Imperialist army under Charles V defeats the French in Italy in this battle, which is so decisive than not another one is fought in this theater for two more decades.

-Battle of First Paniput (1526): Babur's impressive victory leads to the establishment of the Mughal Empire, which dominates much of India until the 19th century. Babur has about 15-20 artillery pieces to his opponent's 0, and their presence proves very effective in the ultimate victory, confirming their utility in a non-European theater.

-Battle of Lepanto (1571): This engagement witnesses the permanent exclusion of Ottoman fleets from the Western Mediterranean. The Christian victory sees the last use of oared ships in perhaps their finest outing.

-Battle of Brietenfeld (1631): Perhaps the first modern battle, Gustavus Adolphus publicizes the Swedish System in deadly style. Linear tactics are more or less born here and Tilly's masses become a thing of the past.

-Battle of Rocroi (1643): Cavalry returns with a vengeance in this ultimate showdown between the French and the Spanish. Spanish tercios hold their own well enough, but French cavalry routs both Spanish wings and isolates the center, leading to a declining role for tercios in the following decades.

-Battle of Blenheim (1704): The finest masterpiece of Marlborough and Eugene leads to the loss of half of the opposing French army in an age often characterized by manouver and rigid protocols in strategy.

-Battle of Yorktown (1781): The last major battle of the American Revolution, a brilliant strategic conception by Rochembau leads to the greatest Franco-American victory of the war. Two years later, the British swallow pride and agree to America's independence.

-Battle of Trafalgar (1805): The most decisive naval battle in all of history, Trafalgar provides the basis for British naval domination that is not seriously threatened until World War II, over 100 years later.

-Battle of Austerlitz (1805): If ever the word 'sweet' could be used to describe war, then Austerlitz is one of the sweetest tactical transpirations in all of history. The victory marks the formal beginning of a near-decade under French domination for Europe.

-Battle of Leipzig (1813): Waterloo dominates many popular conceptions of the Napoleonic Wars, but this is the battle that really set the seal on the First French Empire. What at first turns out to be a normal defeat is transformed into disaster by the premature destruction of the Lindenau bridge, trapping 30,000 French soldiers on the other side of the Elster River.

-Battle of Gettysburg (1863): The second major Confederate offensive into the Union ends in failure again as a result of this battle. After Gettysburg, the military traffic begins to largely run from the North to the South.

-Battle of Tsushima (1905): The trouncing of the Russian fleet by the Japanese marks a major moment in world history, namely a non-European power (Japan) defeating a larger, hulking behemoth (Russia). As a result of this battle, Japan largely controls this part of the world until the Second World War.

-Battle of the First Marne (1914): A stunning strategic triumph, the First Marne compels German armies to retreat 30 miles, ruins the Schlieffen Plan, and keeps France in the war, ensuring a prolonged conflict so dreaded by the German General Staff. This French victory might well be the most impressive military triumph of the 20th century.

-Battle of Midway (1942): The battle that makes America a superpower, Midway results in the loss of four Japanese carriers and a dramatic reversal in the strategic situation in the Pacific. Before this battle, Japanese success seems unbroken, but their loss here is a dangerous premonition for the remainder of the war.

-Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943): Stalingrad marks the turning point of the largest war humanity has ever known. The Germans lose their entire 6th Army and all the gains in the Caucasus.